- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 11, 2002

PUERTO DEL ROSARIO, Canary Islands Dengala Umboto braved a 20-hour journey from Africa to Spain squatting in a small, overcrowded wooden boat. He was so scared he couldn't eat.

He and 13 others were caught trying to sneak onto Fuerteventura, one of Spain's Canary Islands off the coast of northwestern Africa, risking their lives to escape poverty and reach one of Europe's gateways.

Rather than milk and honey, their first taste of the future was a makeshift holding pen, where some 500 people shared three toilets, battled outbreaks of head lice and scabies, and went days or weeks with almost no fresh air or sunlight.

Spain is full of heartbreaking stories involving destitute migrants from Africa. Moroccan boys cling to the underside of trucks ferried across the Strait of Gibraltar to the southern tip of the Spanish mainland. Women pregnant or with small children board cramped, open boats and challenge the deep, cold sea at night.

But human rights groups say the plight of Umboto and others held in the baggage-claim area of a unused airport terminal in the Canary Islands is not only tragic and appalling, but also illegal.

Detainees cannot use the telephone, have visitors or go outside, and they have extremely limited access to lawyers. Nor are they informed in detail of the deportation proceedings against them, activists say.

The numbers vary, but on average 250 people are crammed into a space the Red Cross says is suited for 50. The maximum so far has been 511.

The doors of the terminal, a squat building with a beige stucco finish, are boarded up and the only windows are small ones 15 feet up. The constant glare of fluorescent lights gives people headaches.

The air reeks of pent-up humanity. Clothes washed in bathroom sinks never really dry, say Red Cross workers who go in daily with medicine and other relief material. There is no staff doctor. People sleep on sheetless mattresses placed end to end on the floor.

Most of the migrants come from Morocco and sub-Saharan countries like Cameroon, Togo, Ghana and Guinea-Bissau. Most are men.

Police guarding the terminal don't let reporters in. Mr. Umboto was able to tell his story after he was sent to a hospital for a foot infection and then released.

A lean 29-year-old man from Congo, Mr. Umboto speaks of his ordeal in polite, hushed understatement. Describing life in the terminal, where he spent three weeks, he said, "It is not comfortable."

The Spanish branch of Doctors Without Borders says the detainees are being treated harshly, when all they did was try to enter the country without papers. Normally, this would mean they could be held for 72 hours, then released and told to leave Spain.

However, the government acts as if they had been picked up inside Spain after defying a formal order to leave, which is a more serious infraction, and thus holds them for up to 40 days, said Ignasi Soler, the group's project coordinator for the detention center.

"A center like this should not be a jail, because these people have not committed any crime," he said. "The measures being applied by the government are exaggerated."

Mr. Soler toured the terminal in January with three other members of his group after arduous negotiations with the Interior Ministry, which had denied entry even to lawmakers.

The Canary Islands branch of the Interior Ministry, which handles immigration, declined to address specific accusations. Spokeswoman Maripaz Bernal said detainees are treated as well as the island's limited infrastructure allows in the face of a surge in arrivals.

The terminal has been used to house detainees for 2½ years, but only drew widespread media attention in recent months as a result of chronic overcrowding. Initially it held as few as 60 people.

The government will build a properly equipped center at a military base near the airport, and construction should be completed by May, Mrs. Bernal said.

There has been no widespread outcry from the public about conditions at Fuerteventura, which is just one angle in extensive media coverage of what Spaniards see as a worsening flood of illegal immigration.

Other countries have the same problem as Spain.

In the early 1990s, Italy was swamped by waves of Albanians, many of them literally clinging to the sides of rickety ferries crossing the Adriatic. Initially, there were complaints about conditions at holding centers, but the inflow lessened and Italy got better organized at dealing with it.

France regularly houses hundreds of refugees at a holding center near its end of the railway tunnel under the English Channel. They sneak out at night, trying to board freight trains headed for Britain. There have been no major complaints about treatment or conditions, however.

Australia has experienced violent outbursts at detention centers since the fall. Amnesty International condemned Canberra's policy of locking up asylum-seekers while their applications are being considered.

Thousands of people from North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa try to enter Spain illegally every year, seeking either to eke out a living in Spain or make their way farther north to other European countries.

The shortest route is across the Strait of Gibraltar. But those attempts virtually halted after the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, and are only now beginning to resume.

One theory is that Morocco's government, fearing it would be seen as flooding Europe with Islamic radicals, ordered its police widely accused in Spain of being in cahoots with migrant smugglers to crack down on departures of boats across the waterway.

As a result, smugglers shifted their attention to the Canary Islands.

The Spanish government says the number of people caught entering Fuerteventura and Lanzarote, an island farther north, reached 4,000 last year, nearly double the previous year. This year, by late March, more than 1,500 had been caught, the Interior Ministry said.

Most of those heading for the Canary Islands see it as a way station. Those not caught usually try to move on to the Spanish mainland, with financial help from friends or relatives there.

Fuerteventura is about 60 miles west of El Ayoun, capital of the sparsely populated Western Sahara and the departure point for many desperate travelers.

Smugglers charge about 600 euros ($550) for the trip, compared with 900 euros ($825) to cross the Strait of Gibraltar, which at its narrowest point is just 8 miles wide.

On Fuerteventura resident population 100,000 hardly a day dawns without an abandoned boat appearing on a beach somewhere. Left behind are remnants of the odyssey: soaked clothing, crushed packs of strong cigarettes, plastic jugs for bailing sea water.

Islanders say they sometimes see migrants on the highway, trudging along in single file. The island, roughly 70 miles from tip to tip, is inhospitable to people traveling on foot: It's all rocks, cactus and jagged tongues of lava.

Raul Trujillo, a 30-year-old fishermen, has seen five immigrant boats in recent months, usually painted flat gray for camouflage. "They sit very low in the water, so you almost miss them. Everybody ducks down. The only head you see is the skipper's."

Aurora Hernandez owns a seaside restaurant in the hamlet of Salinas del Carmen and lives in an apartment above it. Three times in the past year, she's had boats try to land on her tiny beach at night. She says she saw one skipper throwing people overboard.

Mrs. Hernandez has rushed people into her restaurant to feed them hot milk and bread and butter and wrap them in green-and-white tablecloths. Invariably, they're drenched, tired and terrified.

"Imagine them, after such a long trip, freezing to death, not knowing where they were, nor how they were going to be treated," she said.

Usually, they keep silent as they wait for the police to come. But once, last summer, a man from war-torn Sierra Leone spoke up, Mrs. Hernandez said. "He said he preferred to die trying to make this trip rather than stay there. He said it was just no way to live."

Many of the would-be immigrants end up at the airport terminal.

Moroccans are repatriated almost immediately under an agreement between the two countries. Other detainees are kept for a maximum of 40 days, although many are moved at some point to a better-equipped center on Gran Canaria, another island, before being released with expulsion orders.

The only other country that Spain has a fast-track repatriation agreement with is Nigeria, although it is negotiating with Ghana, Senegal and others. But the governments of some poor countries in Africa often refuse to take back their citizens.

So people like Mr. Umboto become Africa's flotsam and jetsam driven to flee, then left adrift. They're in limbo, having reached Spain but without obtaining residence and work permits.

Now out of the hospital, Mr. Umboto sleeps at a bus stop outside the Red Cross office a few miles from the airport terminal. He carries his life in a plastic shopping bag.

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