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Spain Helping Mauritania Slow Illegal Immigration

Spanish, Mauritanian governments step up patrols along the coast to stop illegal immigration; Madrid helps Nouakchott with an annual budget of $750 million and a small plane to keep watch on immigration routes.

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Spain is helping Mauritania fight the illegal immigration of Africans trying to reach Europe.  The number of those trying the dangerous ocean crossing are down, but many young Africans remain determined to make the trip.

The northern city of Nouadhibou is Mauritania's commercial capital. But its proximity to the Spanish-controlled Canary Islands also makes it a center for illegal immigration in West Africa.

Bamba Zoumana traveled overland from his home in Mali to join other West Africans trying to make the nearly 1,000 kilometers to the Canary Islands on a small wooden boat. They were turned back to Nouadhibou. But Zoumana says he will try again.

Zoumana says in his own country no one respects you because you have no money. So he made the final decision to leave for his family.  It is a choice between reaching Europe and dying in the ocean. If you die, your family loses. But if you reach Europe, Zoumana says, your family wins.

Some of the people who do not make it to Europe then decided to stay at home. But not Zoumana. He says he should be there. But if he does not succeed, he says he is obliged to do his best for his son to reach Europe.

The Spanish and Mauritanian governments have stepped up patrols along the coast to stop that illegal immigration. Madrid is helping Nouakchott with an annual budget of nearly $750 million and a small plane to keep watch on immigration routes.

Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation Miguel Angel Moratinos was the first European foreign minister to visit Mauritanian President Mohammed Ould Abdel Aziz after his election earlier this year. Moratinos announced plans to strengthen development assistance for fishing, agriculture, and health as well as strategic cooperation on fighting illegal migration, terrorism, and smuggling.

Ahmed Ould Khayer runs a non-governmental organization in Nouadhibou that helps illegal immigrants who are waiting to be returned to their home countries.

Because most of the people trying to emigrate illegally from Nouadhibou are not Mauritanians, Khayer says they live in the country in secret, making their cases difficult to follow. Khayer says his group's research shows the number of people trying to get to Europe illegally has fallen by nearly 80 percent as a result of renewed efforts to secure the coastline.

Malian Diara Oumaro knows it is a dangerous trip. But he is in Nouadhibou getting ready to go.

Oumaro says illegal immigrants are paying boatmen between $700 and $1,000 for passage to the Canary Islands. Many of his friends and neighbors died at sea in 2006 and 2007. But he is determined to try.

Everyone loves Europe, Oumaro says. In Africa now, if you have a job you are saving money to try to get to Europe. If you don't have money, you take small jobs in construction, and as soon as you have enough money, you try to reach Europe because in Europe, Oumaro says, you can make a lot of money and come back home.

Yahya Cisse, who heads a group of young Malians in Nouadhibou, says illegal immigration is a problem for everyone - for the home countries of migrants, for Mauritania, and for Spain.

Cisse says people in Mali know nothing about the ocean. If they knew how dangerous it was, he says, maybe they would not take the risk. In Mauritania, he says Malians must be better informed about the dangers and better prevented from trying the ocean crossing. As for Spain, he says there are some Spanish nationals who are accomplices in illegal immigration who play down the risks of the trip to get money from people desperate for what they hope will be a better life in Europe.

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