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Africans Search for Better Lives in Europe

May 11, 2006 at 6:45 PM EDT
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JEFFREY KAYE, Reporter, KCET-Los Angeles: Since the beginning of the year, some 4,000 African migrants, many of them exhausted and sick, have been detained by Spanish authorities. They’ve traveled the high seas towards Spain’s Canary Islands, off the west coast of Africa, a 500-mile trip.

Migrants from Africa have long trekked north to escape lives of want and misery. In the past, most took safer routes. But as a result of recent crackdowns on illegal immigration from Africa, migrants are now making longer and more perilous journeys.

This year, an estimated 1,300 have died at sea. It’s a tragic exodus to what many migrants consider a promised land: Europe.

Their goal in reaching Europe is refuge, work and a better life. These men made it to Madrid. They spent years getting to Spain. Most of their trip was over land, 2,000 miles from West Africa and across the Sahara Desert.

AFRICAN IMMIGRANT: I see many bones, many bones.

JEFFREY KAYE: Bones?

AFRICAN IMMIGRANT: Bones, bones, bones, bones.

JEFFREY KAYE: Human bones?

AFRICAN IMMIGRANT: Human bones. They died on (inaudible)

JEFFREY KAYE: Ben’s (ph) brother in Nigeria sold family land to pay a smuggler.

AFRICAN IMMIGRANT: 1,200 Euros.

JEFFREY KAYE: 1,200 Euro? And for that you got the boat ride?

Traffickers charge about $1,500 a person for a dangerous 24-hour-long trip on a fishing boat across the Straits of Gibraltar. At its narrowest point, some nine miles separate Africa and Europe.

This narrow band of water has long been an intersection of commerce and culture, as well as a corridor for warriors and invaders. Now, Spanish coastal patrol boats and surveillance stations look towards Africa in search of illegal migrants.

A country overrun

Khalid Zerouali
Border Surveillance, Morocco
If we don't do this, it will either endanger our situation, because we have millions -- not thousands -- millions of illegal migrants heading towards Morocco so that they can come close to Europe. And that constitutes a danger for us.

JEFFREY KAYE: Morocco, on Africa's northwest corner, is caught in the middle. The North African kingdom wants closer ties with Europe, but it's also a way station for migrants.

While some attempt to cross the treacherous straits, others have tried to make their way into two Spanish territories on Morocco's north coast. Once in the enclaves of Sweata and Malia the migrants are legally in Europe. Spain detains them, but since many lack documents and can't be deported, Spain eventually releases them on the Spanish mainland.

At Spain's request, Moroccan authorities have built higher fences, dug ditches, and set up military camps adjacent to Sweata and Malia.

What happened here last year?

MOROCCAN AUTHORITY: Yes, they attacked this line.

JEFFREY KAYE: Right here, they swam and attacked?

The border reinforcement came last year after scores of migrants were injured and at least a dozen killed storming these fences.

Moroccan security forces scour nearby forests and cities hoping to catch migrants hiding out. The show of force is an effort to make sure Morocco is not flooded with migrants, says Khalid Zerouali, who was appointed by the Moroccan king to deal with illegal immigration.

KHALID ZEROUALI, Director of Migration and Border Surveillance, Morocco: If we don't do this, it will either endanger our situation, because we have millions -- not thousands -- millions of illegal migrants heading towards Morocco so that they can come close to Europe. And that constitutes a danger for us.

Difficulties on the way

JEFFREY KAYE: But the intensive security measures have trapped thousands of illegal, sub-Saharan migrants in Morocco. They lead clandestine lives, unable to get jobs, afraid of encounters with authorities. Many live in squalor in slums such as Tafadoum in Rabat, the Moroccan capital.

Scattered through a warren of alleyways are buildings crammed with sub-Saharan migrants. In this apartment, 30 men share three rooms, a makeshift kitchen, and a hole in the floor that serves as their bathroom.

These men from Mali watch TV all today. Others pray. "There is nothing to do, so we pray all the time," said one man. I asked him what he prays for. "We pray for better conditions," he replied.

The men tell of arduous treks to Morocco. Bandits and traffickers, commonly referred to as the mafia, robbed and attacked them.

AFRICAN IMMIGRANT: There is many mafia who are there for attacking people.

JEFFREY KAYE: You've seen them?

AFRICAN IMMIGRANT: Yes.

JEFFREY KAYE: How did that happen?

AFRICAN IMMIGRANT: It happened here. They hacked me here. They want money; I don't have money. They bit him in the hand.

JEFFREY KAYE: The men buy food with money they get by begging. Some have skin rashes and other health problems but don't seek medical care, worried they'll be arrested.

In another apartment, we met a group organizing to speak out about their plight.

"We're treated like animals," said Abu Ben from Ivory Coast. "We fled from soldiers in our country who wanted to kill us. But in Morocco, which we thought was a brother African country, they don't treat us like humans."

Willie from the Democratic Republic of the Congo says he was captured by Moroccan authorities who dumped him and others in the Saharan Desert. Undaunted, they spent three weeks walking back to Morocco. Some, he says, never made it.

AFRICAN IMMIGRANT (through translator): Pregnant women died on the road. We personally put them in graves.

Living on the edge

Boubker Khamlichi
Morocco Association for Development
Because there was a lot of pressure from the European Union. But since Morocco aspires to be a democratic country, it shouldn't repress our sub-Saharan brothers.

JEFFREY KAYE: While some migrants struggle to survive in cities, others hide in the countryside. Accompanied by a human rights advocate, we hiked into a coastal forest to meet Hamadu from Mali, who's lived here for three years. He says there are 57 other people with him but wouldn't let us see them, afraid we'd give away their position.

AFRICAN IMMIGRANT (through translator): Sometimes we forget that we're humans; we're in the forest like animals. But we are human beings, and we want to live like human beings.

JEFFREY KAYE: Hamadu is terrified of being caught. Last year, in what is now a ghost town, thousands of African migrants fled or rounded up by Moroccan authorities, leaving behind fields of personal possessions. Hamadu says he can't go back to his desert homeland, one of the poorest countries on Earth.

AFRICAN IMMIGRANT (through translator): There is no solution. Everywhere in Africa, there is war, famine; we're trapped.

JEFFREY KAYE: Hamadu and his group get support from some Moroccan humanitarian groups, which bring provisions. Boubker Khamlichi is coordinator of a network of human rights association known as Shabaka, "The Web" in Arabic.

Khamlichi is critical of Morocco for doing what he considers to be Europe's dirty work, acting as its border police.

Why is Morocco doing this for Europe?

BOUBKER KHAMLICHI, North Morocco Association for Development and Solidarity (through translator): Because there was a lot of pressure from the European Union. But since Morocco aspires to be a democratic country, it shouldn't repress our sub-Saharan brothers.

KHALID ZEROUALI: Many of our critics think that we are the jandan of Europe. We don't see it this way.

JEFFREY KAYE: Khalid Zerouali maintains his government's crackdown is not as a result of pressure from Europe. He casts it in a humanitarian light, as an effort to protect migrants from traffickers.

KHALID ZEROUALI: When they move northward, they will have to pay their ways. And you know the Saharan region, which is controlled by mafias. So they have to pay their ways in that region, either by paying in dollars and cents or by they conceding girls or minors.

So we deal with these people as victims. When we crack down -- last year, I said, we dismantled 480 networks. Whenever we crackdown on a network, it becomes a liberation operation.

To welcome or rebuff?

Marta Rodriguez-Tarduchy
Director-general of immigration, Spain
The way to get to Spain is to come legally; if they do that, they will have the same rights and duties as any other citizen, but we won't reward illegal immigration.

JEFFREY KAYE: In Spain, the socialist government says its immigration policy is also motivated by human rights. Spain has granted amnesty to hundreds of thousands of illegal migrants, most from Europe and Latin America, and it's signing agreements to allow more Africans to come to the country to work legally.

But with migrants now accounting for some 8 percent of the nation's population of 44 million, and with a majority of Spaniards calling immigration the country's biggest political problem, the nation's director general of immigration, Marta Rodriguez-Tarduchy, says the country has its limits.

MARTA RODRIGUEZ-TARDUCHY, Director General of Immigration, Spain (through translator): People cannot come to Spain illegally. And those who come in an irregular way don't have a future. The way to get to Spain is to come legally; if they do that, they will have the same rights and duties as any other citizen, but we won't reward illegal immigration.

JEFFREY KAYE: But humanitarian groups say Spain should do more. The Karibu Center describes itself as a small Africa in the heart of Madrid. Karibu, which means "welcome" in Swahili, provides food, clothing, as well as legal and medical assistance to African migrants.

Spain's policy is inhumane, says the center's director, Antonio Freijo, a Catholic priest.

ANTONIO FREIJO, Director, Karibu Center, Madrid (through translator): The African immigrant, the sub-Saharan, doesn't come to Spain with a suitcase or a bag of things; they come with nothing. But people need to eat. They need clothing to wear, need items for their personal hygiene, and they also need medical care.

JEFFREY KAYE: But many, such as these men who have been in Spain for five months, wind up homeless on the streets. Without residency or work papers, they are in limbo; they can't go home, and they can't get jobs.

AFRICAN IMMIGRANT: (inaudible) like, if you don't want to give me a residence, why don't you give me a working permit so I can go and work?

JEFFREY KAYE: They believe Spain should provide them with social services, since Spanish authorities freed them from detention centers and put them on the street.

AFRICAN IMMIGRANT: They are freeing us from there. That means they are accepting us.

JEFFREY KAYE: As soon as they brought you to Madrid from Malia they accepted you, is what you're saying?

AFRICAN IMMIGRANT: Yes.

JEFFREY KAYE: Rodriguez-Tarduchy says the migration issue is not a European problem; it's a problem of the 21st century. She says the only viable, long-term solution is to reduce the vast chasm between the world's rich and poor.

But in the meantime, even as illegal migration becomes more difficult, African migrants keep coming, taking greater risks. A poignant reminder of the hazards they're willing to endure is a cemetery on Spain's southern coast: A mass grave with no names contains the bodies of would-be migrants whose lives were claimed by the waters.