Monday, April 16, 2007

Number of Africans illegally arriving in Spain way down

MADRID, Spain (Reuters) -- Improved naval patrols have more than halved the flow of migrants sailing to Spain from Africa in the first quarter of 2007 compared with the previous year, Spanish and European officials said on Thursday.

Last year more than 31,000 illegal migrants hoping for new lives in Europe reached Spain's Canary Islands -- six times more than in 2005 -- after Spain and Morocco blocked easier routes into Spain's North African territories.

Spain's Socialist government had feared another politically damaging wave of migrants this year.

But officials said patrols by the European Union's new Frontex border agency in the waters off Spain and West Africa, together with repatriation agreements Madrid has extracted from African governments, have dramatically cut the flow.

The number of boat-borne migrants arriving at Canary Island beaches dropped by 60 percent in the first three months of the year to 1,525 from 3,914 in the same period in 2006, a government representative in the Canaries said on Thursday.

"Very low numbers of illegal migrants arriving at the Canary Islands and more than a thousand human lives saved -- that is the outcome," Frontex Executive Director Ilkka Laitinen said of the EU operation.

Frontex launched its patrols in August last year.

EU lawmakers backed a plan on Wednesday to set up a rapidly deployable force of border guards to help states such as Spain, Italy and Malta deal with sudden influxes of illegal migrants.

Migrants risk voyages of up to 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles) from the African coast, often in unseaworthy vessels, in the hope of reaching the wealthy 27-nation bloc. Spanish officials have said some 6,000 died en route to the Canary Islands last year alone.

In some cases, the tensions fueled by their desire to cross are beginning to show.

Africans on a fishing boat threw cans of burning petrol at a Spanish police patrol attempting to intercept them last Sunday, police said, after throwing fruit, pieces of wood and shoes failed to deter the guards.

It was the first time police had been attacked by migrants, a police spokesman said on Thursday.

"It's never happened before," he said. "They grabbed some big cans they were carrying with them, they poured petrol into these big cans, like buckets, they lit the petrol and they threw them at my colleagues who were in a rubber dinghy," he said.

Link to Number of Africans illegally arriving in Spain way down - CNN.com