- The Washington Times - Monday, March 20, 2006

LOS CRISTIANOS, Spain — Gangs making huge profits smuggling people from Africa have established a new, but deadly, route into Europe — by small boat from Mauritania to the tourist beaches of the Canary Islands.

Earlier this month, more than 1,000 sub-Saharan Africans staggered ashore at resorts on Tenerife and Gran Canaria after spending six days at sea.

They arrived in ports such as Los Cristianos, yards from startled British and German vacationers waiting to board the Jolly Roger pirate party ship or preparing to take glass-bottomed boat tours of the harbor.

More than 3,500 migrants have arrived by boat already this year, compared with 4,751 during all of last year. Last Tuesday, 331 migrants arrived aboard nine cayucos — 70-foot-long wood and fiberglass open boats used for night fishing in Mauritania.

An estimated one in three boats fails to survive the 500-mile journey from Mauritania. Spanish Red Cross officials estimate at least 1,200 migrants have drowned since the new route was established at the end of last year.

On Friday, a Spanish hospital ship slipped into Gran Canaria with 25 corpses in its hold, every one wearing a life jacket. Fishermen talk of “catching bodies,” their skin bleached by the sun and salt, their eyes pecked out by seagulls.

The latest arrivals on Tenerife — 106 African men in two boats — were sent temporarily to the garage of a police station above the tourist strip of Los Cristianos, while soldiers prepared to convert a unused barracks into a holding camp. A port policeman who saw the men arrive said they barely seemed to know where they were.

“Many of them could hardly walk. They were freezing,” he said. “People felt sorry for them.”

Boat people have been arriving in the Canaries for years, treating the islands as a gateway to Spain and the rest of Europe. Most are poverty-stricken migrants in search of work.

It has been one of the major sea routes into Europe for Africans, along with the Strait of Gibraltar, which is now more closely policed, or the journey farther east from Libya to Malta or the Italian island of Lampedusa.

The old route to the Canaries was much shorter: a 60-mile run from beaches on the border between Morocco and the disputed Western Saharan region. Then, in late 2004, Spain persuaded Morocco to clamp down on the boats, and Moroccan authorities pushed thousands of migrants south into Mauritania.

Santiago Alonso, a doctor and head of Third World projects for Medicos del Mundo, estimates there are 10,000 to 15,000 migrants waiting in Mauritania for a chance to head to Europe.

A passage costs about $1,230 a head with smugglers, although migrants have started banding together to buy boats and supplies, reducing the price to $300 a head.

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