On the Fringes of Europe, a Crackdown on Migrants

By IndepthAfrica
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Sep 4th, 2012
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By HARVEY MORRIS,/rendezvous.blogs

LONDON — In the early hours of Tuesday, units of Spain’s paramilitary Civil Guard rounded up a group of would-be African immigrants on an otherwise uninhabited Spanish rock off the North African coast and shipped them back to the Moroccan shore just a few dozen yards away.

“Thus ended the dreams of dozens of sub-Saharans,” said Spain’s El Mundo, describing the failure of one attempt by poor African migrants to escape to the relative prosperity of Europe.

The overnight joint operation by Spanish and Moroccan authorities came just days after several dozen undocumented Africans swam or waded across a narrow channel from Morocco to Isla de Tierra, a remnant of Spain’s presence in North Africa, along with the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla.

Spanish media reports said that, under an agreement between the two countries, 10 would-be immigrants — two mothers and eight children — would be allowed to remain on Spanish territory. Around 70 others, who were now back in Morocco, faced possible expulsion to a no-man’s land between that country and neighboring Algeria.

The incident underlined the lengths to which poor migrants will go to grasp a better future and also how far authorities will go to plug the holes in the walls of Fortress Europe.

As European governments impose austerity measures in the face of the Continent’s debt crisis, they are under domestic pressure to stem illegal immigration that is seen as putting additional pressure on scarce resources.

Some of the most hard-pressed economies of southern Europe, including Spain, Greece and Italy, are on the front line as waves of would-be migrants head for the Continent to escape poverty or unrest in their own countries.

As in the latest case, authorities have blamed organized gangs of people smugglers for exploiting poor Africans with promises of reaching Europe. José Manuel García-Margallo, the Spanish foreign minister, was quoted as saying he believed the migrants’ arrival at Isla de Tierra was coordinated by “mafia who traffic human beings.”

The illegal migrant traffic has created tensions in Greece, an entry point for refugees who include Afghans fleeing violence in their country.

As elsewhere, anti-immigration groups have used the excuse of the economic crisis to target newcomers. In May, members of the extreme right-wing Golden Dawn fire-bombed a shelter used by immigrants in the Greek port of Patras.

Human rights groups have expressed concern that, in their zeal to protect Europe’s borders, authorities are neglecting the rights of would-be migrants and particularly of those who might have a legitimate claim to asylum.

Spain has already been in the firing line from organizations such as Doctors Without Borders for excluding immigrants without residence permits from access to public healthcare.

There was outrage in Italy earlier this year when two Algerian men who tried to enter illegally had their mouths bound with duct tape on a flight deporting them from the country. Amnesty International has also accused Italian authorities of forcing migrants back to Libya, where they were subsequently detained and mistreated.

The human rights organization accused Greek authorities of a mass crackdown on “irregular migrants” this month after reports that more than 7,500 foreign nationals had been rounded up in Athens.

Amnesty estimated that 600,000 men, women and children were detained in Europe each year for migration control purposes. “There has been a growing trend of ‘criminalization’ of irregular migration in Europe,” the organization said as it launched an online petition urging the European Parliament to hold authorities accountable for their treatment of migrants.

“Today, Europe is failing to promote and respect the rights of migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees,” Amnesty said in a statement. “Hostility is widespread and mistreatment often goes unreported.”

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