Friday, May 19, 2006

MADRID — Spain yesterday put the last touches on plans to stop tens of thousands of African immigrants heading for its shores.

A centerpiece of the plan is to increase Spain’s diplomatic presence throughout Africa and reach deals on the repatriation of illegal immigrants similar to accords already concluded with Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco and Nigeria.

An “Africa plan” was to be implemented within 48 hours, Deputy Prime Minister Maria-Teresa Fernandez announced after a Cabinet meeting.

The headquarters will be in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, under the supervision of a special ambassador, Miguel Angel Mazarambroz.

His staff will deal with repatriations to the West African states of Cape Verde, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Niger and Senegal.

Spanish embassies were to be opened in Mali and Cape Verde, and the mission in Sudan would be reopened, to reinforce Spain’s diplomatic presence in sub-Saharan Africa.

The urgency of the situation was thrown into sharp relief as authorities on Tenerife Island began a mass transfer of hundreds of immigrants from the overwhelmed reception center on to neighboring Gran Canaria.

Nine buses with about 600 immigrants aboard took the Africans to the ferry terminal on Tenerife.

The scale of the problem is illustrated by figures showing that more than 1,000 African immigrants arrived in the Canary Islands this week alone — 656 of them in the previous 24 hours.

The total for the year to date is 7,384 compared with 4,751 for the whole of last year.

Illegal aliens can only be expelled if bilateral agreements exist and, above all, if their countries of origin can be determined.

Otherwise the Spanish authorities have to free them after 40 days with a notice of expulsion, which cannot be enforced.

According to the Red Cross, hundreds of would-be immigrants have drowned in seas off Spain since the end of last year. Many travel in overcrowded makeshift boats not suited to the high seas.

Red Cross workers on the Canaries say they are overwhelmed with the “avalanche” of arrivals, many of whom need immediate medical treatment.

The Canary Islands, Spanish territory and therefore part of the European Union, have been targeted by would-be immigrants since passage became more difficult from Morocco to Europe via the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, the scene last year of violent attempts by would-be immigrants to storm them.

Sixteen persons died in the incidents after which prospective immigrants were rounded up, and sent to Morocco, which dumped them in the desert. Since then security measures have been tightened on both sides of the Mediterranean Sea.

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