The European Union has offered to help Spain deal with a wave of illegal immigrants abandoning Africa for the Canary Islands. The aid will include setting up naval and air patrols.
The number of African immigrants has soared since policies were changed
The offer came after autonomous Spanish authorities in the Canary Islands called on Madrid and the European Union for help.
"We cannot solve problems overnight, however we are very willing and committed to assist the Spanish government in our best possible ways, either with financial means (or) operationally," an EU spokesman said.
His comments came as Spanish and EU officials held talks in Brussels late Tuesday.
Thousands of refugees are estimated to die in sea crossings
About 7,500 illegal immigrants have landed in the Canaries this year, with some 2,000 Africans reaching the islands this month alone. That compares with 4,751 for the whole of last year, and 8,500 in 2004.
'A European problem'
The incredible rise in illegal immigrant numbers comes as a result of moves by Morocco and Spain to block easier migration routes into Europe. Now, the migrants leave from the West Sahara, Mauritania and Senegal, often packed into small fishing boats. Spain's deputy prime minister, Maria-Teresa Fernandez de la Vega, said the whole of Europe should take responsibility for the problem.
“It’s clear that this is not just a problem which affects Spain, but one that concerns the whole of Europe. It’s a difficult situation, which affects millions of people trying to leave their continent. We have to approach the migration problem from different angles: cooperation with the refugees' countries of origin, development aid and regulating the influx to Europe.”
Teresa Fernandez de la Vega
Initially, Frontex, EU's expert border-control agency in Poland, will be sent in to advise Spanish border guards. They are also to construct a coordination point in the Canary Islands. And EU Justice and Interior Affairs Commissioner Franco Frattini said Spain can also expect back-up from other EU states.
“In two weeks we will be able to call upon member states," said Frattini. "Already eight have come forward who are ready to provide rapid offshore vessels and reconnaissance planes."
Pledge from Brussels
The aim is to locate and detain vessels as they are leaving the African coast. Spain says the EU has also proposed setting up reception centers for immigrants who arrive in the Canaries. Brussels has also pledged some 2 million euros ($2.6 million) in aid to Madrid to cope with the refugees.
Spain's Fernandez de la Vega was due to hold further talks on the problem with European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso, External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini and the EU's foreign policy chief Javier Solana.
"After those meetings I think we will have a very good view on what it is the Spanish government would like the European Union, particularly the commission, to do," said an EU spokesman.
"We would then have a best overview of the measures requested and we could then obviously devise our own response to this," he said.
Looking at Africa
The problem must also be addressed in Africa itself. In the long-term, the EU says it will work to improve the situation in the refugees' own countries. However, this will be a long and arduous process.
Spain and Senegal agreed to work on stemming the flow of immigration on Tuesday, but failed to sign a formal repatriation agreement. The main reason many Africans want to leave is due to extreme poverty. Niger’s foreign ministry says this is the real problem that must be tackled to stop migration.
Spanish policy is to deport all migrants who don’t meet asylum conditions. However, those with no identification, or from countries that have no deportation accord with Madrid, often simply end up moving elsewhere in Europe.
Spain’s foreign minister has complained that the bureaucracy of the system means he is constantly required to sign new deportation agreements with African countries. But human rights groups are warning against any mass deportation policy, which they claim legitimate asylum seekers could also get caught up in.