African aid scheme sees dramatic fall in migrant arrivals

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Investment in West African cooperation stems flow of boats after 2006 crisis.

10 January 2008

MADRID - Fewer than 20,000 undocumented migrants were caught trying to reach Spain by sea in 2007, half as many as during the previous year. Government officials claim the drop in numbers confirms the success of a new, multifaceted strategy to tackle illegal immigration.

Though still high by historical standards, the 18,228 migrants detained by Spanish police last year is 53.5 percent less than the 39,225 who were caught in 2006, when a surge of African migration toward the Canary Islands made headlines around the world and forced the Spanish government and European Union to reconsider their immigration policies.

The 2006 immigration crisis, which stretched the resources of the Canary Islands to the limit and placed illegal immigration among Spaniards' top concerns, continues to influence the government's approach to the issue. Weekly meetings coordinated by Deputy Prime Minister María Teresa Fernández de la Vega and involving ministers and secretaries of state in charge of the interior, defense, foreign affairs, labour and public works portfolios continue to take place each Friday in the Moncloa Palace in Madrid. There, around a round table and over coffee and orange juice, the government's top officials involved in setting immigration policy continually adjust Spain's strategy toward the constantly evolving phenomenon.

The challenge has so far been taken up most prominently by Bernadino León, the secretary of state for foreign affairs. León oversaw the establishment of six new Spanish embassies in West African countries, more than doubling Spain's diplomatic presence in the region, while coordinating the distribution of EUR 700 million in development aid - seven times more than the amount provided under the former Popular Party administration of José María Aznar.

The embassies have helped coordinate immigration policy with the governments of the West African countries that are the principal exporters of seaborne migrants to Spain along routes that have become increasingly long and perilous.

The aid, meanwhile, has often been linked to attaining deportation agreements to allow Spain to send back citizens of West African countries. In the first six months of 2007, 2,000 were deported - far fewer than the number who arrived but still an important deterrent to others thinking of paying traffickers thousands of euros and risking their lives to make the journey.

In addition to sending more diplomats and aid to Africa, Spain also sent more security personnel, including intelligence agents to track people traffickers and forewarn of migrant boat departures. In turn, an ongoing operation coordinated by Europe's border control agency Frontex to patrol the West African coast has led to many vessels being intercepted at sea, long before they come near the Canaries.

[Copyright EL PAÍS / TOMÁS BÁRBULO 2008]

Subject: Spanish news

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