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Exploiting Africa's migrants



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991
Comments to

June 9, 2006

LONDON - One hundred black men crammed together in a small boat crossing a patch of the wild Atlantic. The Spanish know how many arrive, but have no idea how many are lost at sea. No one mentions, either African or Spaniard, that this island is where Thor Heyerdahl of Kon Tiki fame made his home until he died two years ago. The panicky feeling now dominating the airwaves and newsprint leaves no time for either irony or imagination.

In the local press here it's a front-page story every day. The president of the local Tenerife government has written to all the media asking them "to tone down" their coverage as it is undermining the tourist industry, the driving force in the local economy.

Yet, as Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero told parliament last week, the number of illegal immigrants arriving in Spain has been less over the last twelve months than it was in the last year of the government of José María Aznar. Aznar's effort to clamp down and persuade Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia to tighten up controls on the overland routes has simply pushed the would-be migrants out to sea.

Just over thirty years ago I penned my first article for the International Herald Tribune- on immigration. I had spent two weeks in Senegal, Mali and Mauritania interviewing young men who were planning to cross the desert, find a trafficker on the Mediterranean coast who would then secrete them in a truck and drive them up to Paris. Paris hired these illegals by the hundred to clean the streets. I also visited where they lived- in abandoned factories on the outskirts of Paris, 50 men to a dormitory. In remote villages on the Senegal river I had come across the most amazing sight- suddenly out of the desert shrub land would rise a village, gleaming white with fresh paint, a newly built mosque, its minaret quavering in the heat, and along the pathways elegant women walking along, dressed in fine damask, parasols held aloft to hold off the dangerous sun. Young men? There were none. The women told me they were working in Paris and sending home a postal order every month. Rural development? There was little sign. The remittances had gone into paint, clothes, the mosque and a school. The fields and goats, never particularly productive, were even less so.

Thirty plus years later, a new generation continues the traffic. But if the land ways are blocked, they take the bus down to the coast and risk their lives with a boatman who probably has never before ventured further than 5 kilometres out to sea.

Meanwhile in Tenerife something else is going on. Not that long ago there was no tourist industry to speak of. The island, and its Canary neighbours, were poverty stricken, so barely noticed by Madrid they made an ideal place for a disaffected General Franco to plan his coup d'etat. From the turn of the nineteenth century onwards young men had got on rickety steam and sailing ships and crossed the Atlantic to Cuba and Venezuela. Today there are daily direct flights to and from Havana and Caracas, reuniting families but often bringing back those who never found prosperity on the other side of the Atlantic and now realize that they will have a better life in their homeland or their father's homeland. Tenerife is more swamped with returning Latin migrants than it is with Africans. Spain has no trouble employing either group. The economy purrs ahead and employers beseech the government not to return the boat people to whence they came.

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But rank and file Spaniards don't like this massive African influx. They see Africa as a bottomless pit. Racism is endemic.

So what can Spain do? The European Union has been called in to help patrol the Atlantic. A planeload of migrants or two are being returned to Senegal. But the government has no intention of standing up to the highly subsidised Spanish farmers who are clamouring for cheap labour. No one sees the irony of the migrants ending up helping to keep the price of Spanish oranges and tangerines competitive with Morocco's or Spanish early flowers and vegetables competitive with Senegal's.  

Immigration has long been an exploitative business, and give the migrant the alternative of working at home he will quickly return there to a less cruel and more emotionally secure environment, as the Cubans and Venezuelans show. Europe should reduce its trade barriers and help make work for the Africans at home.


Copyright © 2006 By JONATHAN POWER


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


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