Deaths at Sea

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The main way that people cross the border from Morocco to Spain is by sea. There are many smugglers who make a living charging people hundreds of euros to cram into tiny, poor quality row boats, called “pateras”.

This way of crossing the sea to Morocco used to be mainly done over the Straits of Gibraltar, which is only 14 kilometres wide at some points, over quite calm seas. The idea of rowing that distance in a poor quality boat is perhaps not that bad, the only danger being getting noticed by boat patrols working for Frontex or the Spanish border police. Many migrants die crossing even this short distance, however, due to poor quality, overcrowded boats and lack of life-jackets.

People would also often row from the coast of Western Sahara, which is under Moroccan military occupation and so has an open border to Morocco, to the Canary Islands, which are under the control of Spain. Once migrants are in the Canary Islands they can apply for asylum and are then allowed to travel to mainland Spain.

Now however, in both the Straits of Gibraltar and the sea around the Canary Islands, Frontex has built the S.I.V.E. radar system which is sophisticated enough to detect a human heartbeat from a distance. This means that row boats, which wouldn’t show up on a normal radar because they are so small and made of wood, can now be detected, and the Frontex/Spanish police boats can go and apprehend them.

In 2005 after the mass stormings of the border fences at Ceuta and Melilla, the EU responded by pumping millions of Euros into border control measures, in ways which dramatically changed the routes that these boats bringing migrants took.

Firstly, Frontex launched the “Hera II” mission in the seas near the Canary Islands, making it even harder for boats to reach the Canaries from Western Sahara than it already was. Migrants and people smugglers responded by moving further south, into Mauritania, to launch their boats, bypassing the area between Western Sahara and the Canaries, where Hera II was operating.

Hot on their heals, the EU quickly made a deal with the Mauritanian government, offering them millions of Euros in development aid in exchange for repatriation agreements. This agreement allowed Frontex to dump any migrants found at Sea onto Mauritanian soil, so that the EU no longer had to go through the lengthy process of sending back to where they were actually from, speeding up the process of patrolling the sea and catching migrants. Mauritanian security forces also stepped up efforts to repress migrants in their territory.

This meant that migrants and people smugglers had to drastically change routes again, starting from Senegal, which is where the biggest group of migrants passing through Morocco are from in the first place. The boat crossing from Mauritania to the Canaries was already hundreds of miles further than from Western Sahara, now these small wooden row boats were having to travel thousands of miles through treacherous ocean waves. All these changes took place within two months, in September and October of 2005.

This sequence of events only goes to show how the EU’s expensive border control policies, involving both direct force in its own territories and foreign policy deals with non-EU states, only makes migration into the EU more dangerous and deadly for migrants. These policies will never actually stop migration. The economic incentives to come to Europe to work are simply too strong for people coming from countries devastated by centuries of colonial and neo-colonial exploitation by European and other Northern powers. The shame of returning home as a failure to your family after they have spent everything they have to pay for you to travel to Europe is also far too great for most migrants to face up to.


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