The Magazine

Europe's Future

The Senegalese (and the Malians, Mauritanians, Gambians, et al.) are coming to Spain--and staying.

Dec 4, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 12 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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In early 2005, Spain's Socialist prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero made life much easier for Spain's undocumented immigrants. He proposed to amnesty roughly a million of them, provided they could show they had been working in the country for several months. The opposition whittled the number down to about 700,000. Such amnesties were not new. The Aznar government had passed five of them since the mid-1990s. But Zapatero's was simpler and more open to abuse, and bigger than all previous amnesties combined. What is more, by announcing it many months in advance, he opened a window that would lure new immigrants into the country in order to set up a paper trail that would render them undeportable. And because of free movement between European states, the amnesty harvested the fury of politicians abroad, including the French interior minister and presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy. Spain was making immigration policy for other countries, he warned. And it was giving incentives to the most work-shy of its immigrants to move to European states with more generous welfare benefits. In a series of knock-down, drag-out meetings between European justice and interior ministers in Finland this summer, the E.U. countries called for an end to Spanish-style unilateral amnesties.

But that does not exhaust the reasons to come to Spain. Under a 2000 law, registering with the local census (the padrón municipal) permits access to health care and other services. An immigrant can be eligible for welfare services while existing below the radar of the enforcement authorities. The upside of such registration is that Spain may have a more accurate count of its immigrants than other countries. The downside is that it has rapidly mounting welfare dependency--300,000 immigrants now live off of social benefits. All told, the combination of easy admission and generous welfare has created what the newspapers call an efecto llamada. The most graceful way to translate the term is to say that Spain is not just accepting immigrants, it is summoning them.

Even the refugee camps in the Canaries--while overwhelmed by the waves of newcomers--are welcoming. Authorities have been easygoing about allowing Senegalese elders to organize camp life, and have done their best to ease overcrowding. In addition to the three centers in Tenerife and one in Gran Canaria, other facilities have been adapted to accommodate the overflow. The camp at Hoya Fría had gigantic circus tents erected outside it for much of the summer. A military barracks at Las Raices was converted to migrant housing. So was a discotheque in La Gomera. These facilities are almost empty now, but only because the weather will be too rough for navigation until the turn of the year. The natives of the Canaries do not want more such places built. This is a conservative part of Spain, after all, where there are still streets named after Franco, and where, up until a couple of years ago, the "immigration crisis" that roiled local government meetings concerned the 10,000 or so retirees from Germany and elsewhere in Europe who get added to the islands' population of 2 million every year.

Fished out

In late October, Faty Dembel, who immigrated from Senegal ten years ago and now runs Casa Africa, an institution in Valencia meant to spread African culture and to train young immigrants, spoke to a reporter for the Spanish newspaper ABC. "Judging from television," he said, "you would get the impression that everyone in Senegal wants to come to Spain, but that is not the case."

Things have apparently changed in Senegal since he left. Everyone does want to come to Spain, it seems. In the past year, there have been departures en masse from Saint-Louis, the former capital of French West Africa in Senegal; and Casamance in the south, site of an on-again, off-again guerrilla war. Departures from the area around Dakar, the capital, began only in October 2005. Boats were launched in the shadow of the giant beachside mosque at Ouakam, from the touristy coastal village of Ngor, and from the waterfront at Yoff, next to Léopold Sédar Senghor International Airport. In mid-October, in the company of two local sociologists, I visited Hann Oualaga, Hann Bel-Air, and Thiaroye, all fishing villages of Senegal's Lébou people which in recent years have been swallowed by exurban Dakar. Already Thiaroye has been, for practical purposes, evacuated by its young men, leaving only women, children, and the aged. Bargny, down the coast, had to forfeit its games in last summer's annual soccer tournament when it was discovered that its entire team had boarded cayucos to Europe.

These villages used to be pretty well off. At Hann Oualaga, the dusty streets are shaded in places with pretty, feather-leaved nim trees, and the beaches are lined with summer homes in "seashell style," built by the French and Middle Eastern postcolonial elite in the 1970s. As the neighborhood has filled up with poorer people, the houses have been abandoned, and now their courtyards are put to other uses, like drying fish. A couple have been taken over by traditional Senegalese Muslim fraternities. The locals have managed to jerry-build public utilities with considerable ingenuity and limited means. The place goes pitch-black for minutes and sometimes hours at night. Sewage trickles from the mouth of a yard-wide corrugated iron pipe near the beachside market at Hann Oualaga, where local fishermen unload goods off their boats.

Near the beach in Thiaroye, we visited a girlish-looking woman named (let's say) Oumy, in a one-room concrete lean-to where she lived with her mother-in-law and her two children. She had a "job" of sorts, cleaning the polluted beach as part of an ecological program sponsored by a European foundation. It didn't bring in much. During our visit, a neighborhood debt-collector came to demand that she settle her outstanding balance for some washing powder she had bought days before. It was for 19 cents in the local currency. Oumy's one-room concrete house has a dust courtyard, a floor that consists of a few shards of linoleum, and one piece of furniture--a bed. But she does have a color television that runs well enough on pirated electricity to pick up the news, in French, from Europe. Television is the source both of the values that make people want to go to Europe and the practical information that allows them to get there and stay.

Oumy was in a celebratory mood. Her husband had left in a big cayuco in late August and had been apprehended on a beach in the Canaries. Since the authorities knew who he was--it was his second try--he couldn't claim to be Ivorian, as most of his boatmates did. But no one had any time to process him, either. His 40 days were up and he had just called from the Red Cross to say he had been released. It may sound odd, but almost everyone in Senegal, whether literate or not, has a detailed and accurate understanding of Spanish immigration law and the way it is applied in practice--the bit about the 40 days, whether they monitor your phone calls (they do, unless you make them from the Red Cross), and so on. Part of the reason that cayucos leave in flotillas, some authorities think, is to overwhelm the immigration bureaucracy: The more cases the government needs to find translators, interrogators, and analysts for, the better everyone's chances of getting to the end of their 40 days. For the same reason, exhausted travelers seldom flee into the trees when their cayucos hit the beach, according to authorities in the Canaries. Why, after all, should they expose themselves to uncertainty? They simply wait to begin their next voyage: through a bureaucracy they know reasonably well by word of mouth and are reasonably confident of being able to navigate.

Senegal's economy has been deteriorating for decades. Drought and bad harvest struck in the early 1970s, spurring many farm laborers to move into the fishing industry. In more recent years, traditional African destinations for short-term emigration--such as Gabon and the Ivory Coast--have been shut off by political turmoil. Less traditional destinations--Europe and the United States--have been closed down by increasing vigilance at airports. And the fishing industry has collapsed. Almost all Senegalese, rightly or wrongly, blame fishing accords their country signed with the European Economic Community (as the E.U. then was) in the 1970s and '80s. Most migrant boats are now captained by ex-fishermen, people who really know their way around the eastern reaches of the Atlantic. Leo González, of the Tenerife office of Salvamento Marítimo, Spain's coast guard--which has rescued 18,000 people in its boats since last spring--said, "If you judge from the way they sail, they are very good skippers." And they are well equipped. The fishing accords called for the training of Senegalese fishermen in new navigational technologies, such as GPS.

This set of circumstances arose just as Spain and other European countries were blocking various reliable short routes that had allowed North Africans (and ambitious sub-Saharan Africans) to enter Europe pretty much at will, even after legal immigration was officially closed off by many countries in the 1970s. The Strait of Gibraltar has been heavily patrolled for several years now. Spain's African enclaves, Ceuta and Melilla, have been sealed off with gigantic ditches and sophisticated double fences since a series of incidents a year ago, when hundreds of Africans tried to storm the borders, and Moroccan police shot ten of them dead. In recent years people have begun migrating from all across Africa to the stretch of Moroccan coastline between Tarfaya and Laayoune, both only 60 miles to Fuerteventura in the Canaries. Put a 35-horsepower motor on a patera--the Spanish word for the traditional Moroccan fishing skiff--and you can make the trip in half a day.

But early last summer, Moroccan authorities--for considerations from Spain that will likely never be made public--began policing their own coasts. What happened next surprised Spaniards. Cutting off the short route only made mass migration more attractive to people in ever farther-flung regions of Africa. Nouadhibou, the northernmost port in Mauritania, the next country south from Morocco, began filling up with tens of thousands of Africans willing to go 500 miles to the Canaries. Mauritania, though, began accepting Spanish law enforcement missions in the course of the summer. So the traffic started passing through Saint-Louis, the northernmost port in Senegal, 830 miles from Spain. They are coming from Dakar, too, of course, 100 miles farther still. Wherever you leave from, if you keep heading north, you will eventually see, from 70 miles off, the gigantic volcano of Teide on Tenerife, rearing two miles straight up out of the ocean.

Some bigger boats have even come from Guinea Conakry, 400 miles beyond Dakar. Experts, including those in the Salvamento Marítimo, reckon that, beyond Guinea, a direct trip to Europe in a cayuco is logistically impossible, given the weight of gasoline and fresh water the boat would have to carry, the wear and tear on engines, etc. Maybe that's true, but the certitude that any given place is too far to immigrate from has never been borne out yet.

Barcelona or death

Senegal receives more aid per capita than almost any country in Africa. It is poor enough to need such infusions, but also--in theory, at least--peaceful, well-educated, and democratic enough to use them productively. Between international charity and an admirably robust system of more traditional, family-based assistance, nobody is starving there. "They are not coming to Europe because they don't have bread," says Papa Sow, a young, Senegal-born sociologist who works in Barcelona. "They're coming because they don't have hope." They're battling for a life more meaningful than the half-employed, underutilized dependency and mediocrity that stretches out before them.

That they are willing to risk their lives on the high seas says something heroic about them, of course, but also something macabre. There have been 600 cadavers pulled out of African waters this year, according to Froilán Rodríguez, the immigration minister for the Canary Islands. In August, the European commissioner Franco Frattini of Italy alluded to a possible 3,000 dead. Angel Acebes, secretary-general of Spain's opposition Popular party, has thrown out the figure of 6,000. Some boats are lost altogether. The Canary current is where the Gulf Stream turns abruptly south along the African coast and then rushes west, back across the Atlantic. This past spring, a boat filled with immigrants who had left Senegal in January and suffered an engine failure was found floating, its passengers long dead, in waters off Barbados.

Even if everything goes perfectly, crossings are harrowing. These boats run at 5 or 10 knots, which will get you to the Canaries in 7 to 8 days if the weather is good and the seas are calm. There are no toilets and the stink, naturally, is unimaginable. There is no place to lie down and the benches offer nothing to lean back on. This means an almost sleepless week for many people.

But if you get on a bad boat, as 17-year-old Malang Kalela of Ziguinchor did, all bets are off. I met him at the Machado Escuela Hogar, a school for troubled teens near the village of Esmeralda that has been converted into a camp for underage migrants in Tenerife. Both motors on Malang's boat conked out, and only a good captain kept it, and the 80 passengers aboard, from drifting westward into oblivion. It arrived in Tenerife on its thirteenth day at sea, after the food, fresh water, and seasickness pills had run out. Worse, two people had leapt off the boat in the middle of one night, and drowned. Such incidents are common. Many of the migrants have never been at sea before and don't know how to swim. (Two whom I met in the camp for minors--Pape Omar Diop, 13, of Saint-Louis, and his 17-year-old friend Ass Ndiaye--kept referring to the ocean as le fleuve, French for "the river.") Almost everyone gets confused, and some get delirious, from the lack of food and water and the overpowering tropical sun. In one episode much discussed in Dakar, a boatful of people were gripped by a vivid collective hallucination that a deum, a man-devouring spirit of West African religion, had found his way on board and was wreaking havoc. At least 20 panicked people drowned themselves rushing over the gunwales.

But Malang says he has no regrets. The often proclaimed motto of the migrants--which horrifies Senegalese public opinion and would horrify Spaniards if they ever heard it--is Barça mba barsakh. Translated out of Wolof, this means "Barcelona or Death!" Barcelona in the sense of the soccer team, not the place. One of the kids at the camp near Esmeralda told me that when he got to the Spanish mainland he wanted to live in "Real Madrid" (another soccer team, of course). What courage! What ignorance! And how hard it is to say which of the two predominates.

Zapatero versus Europe

Spain's immigration policy is built on the idea that immigration is an inevitable part of the country's economic modernization. It just needs to be managed. Until two years ago, Spaniards were tranquil about this future. But there were two things they misunderstood. First, they thought immigration would pay for itself. But now Prime Minister Zapatero sees immigration as a reason for "more social policy, more spending on education, health and housing." Second, Spaniards thought they would get something other than the urban unrest and ethnic confrontation that their neighbors in France have faced. Their immigration would be an orderly matter of deferential Guatemalan nannies and diligent Bolivian harvest workers. To put it less euphemistically, Spaniards thought they'd get Latin Americans instead of Muslims.

And it's true that Spain's immigrant population (except in heavily Muslim Catalonia) is highly atypical of Europe's. Although Morocco is less than 10 miles away across the Strait of Gibraltar, well under a quarter of Spain's newcomers are Muslims. The Senegalese boat people might be an indication that the next wave of immigrants to Spain will be poorer, darker, and more Muslim than the last. But for now, aside from half a million Moroccans, Spain has few Muslim communities of significant weight. If one looks at the resources that Spain's regional and national governments have invested over the past decade to encourage legal immigration from Bolivia, Colombia, and Ecuador--including informational and public-relations campaigns and heavily staffed liaison offices in Latin capitals--it is clear that non-Muslim, Hispanophone immigration has been not just a matter of strong societal preference but also of governmental policy. The bloody Madrid train bombings of March 2004, unleashed by al Qaeda-linked Moroccans living in Spain, solidified the public's preference for Latin American immigration. But the bombings reversed the government's commitment to such immigration by bringing to power Zapatero's Socialists, who promised an "alliance of civilizations" between Islam and the West.

The result has been a rather plainspoken backlash against immigration. Mayor Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón of Madrid said recently, "Madrid is not--and does not wish to be--multicultural." Suddenly, according to a poll for the semigovernmental Center for Sociological Investigations, 60 percent of Spaniards say immigration is the country's "principal problem." Two-thirds warn that Spain has reached the "maximum level" that it can tolerate. Almost 70 percent of Zapatero's own Socialists disapprove of his immigration policy.

But so, just as importantly, does Europe. In 2005, the Zapatero government presented its willingness to act alone in amnestying hundreds of thousands of immigrants as evidence of a bold and, above all, generous worldview. Now that the public is in a rage over the arrival of cayucos, the government has come whimpering to the E.U. for help. "Regulating the conditions for entry," Zapatero said last fall, "cannot be the exclusive responsibility of those who are near the gate." (Precisely the E.U.'s case against his amnesty.) During the meeting in Tampere, Finland, over the summer to address the crisis of the boat people, Spanish justice minister Juan Fernando López Aguilar warned that "the majority of Africans who land in the Canaries are Francophones who want to go to E.U. countries other than Spain. They are heading north." (Untrue, as we have seen, but widely believed in the E.U.) Spain's constitutional philosophy, as well as its empirical observations, seemed to rotate 180 degrees, depending on whether it was asserting its autonomy or shaking the cup. The effrontery of the country's frequent changes of course has left European governments inclined to make Spain suffer a bit. Bavarian interior minister Günther Beckstein noted recently that, at the height of the Balkans war, Germany got 448,000 asylum-seekers in a single year. "Spain," he said, "is not going to drown under 25,000 immigrants."

Thus far, the Senegalese hegira is indeed numerically small. But it is telegenic and acutely embarrassing, and the Spanish government has needed the E.U.'s help. Because of the way he framed his withdrawal from Iraq immediately after taking power in 2004--as an assertion of multilateralism--Zapatero is in a position where he has to ask the world's permission to use his own army. (In October, according to a scoop in El País, the government did mull sending a fleet of warships to the African coast to block migrants at the point of departure. The idea was rejected because defense minister José Antonio Alonso worried that the big ships might swamp the rickety cayucos.)

So Spain asked for help from Frontex--the European Union border guard launched in 2005. Frontex has two big problems. The first is that it is a Potemkin agency, with a budget of only €15.8 million ($20 million). This makes it a coalition of the willing, and the coalition has not been very willing. Under Frontex's aegis, Spain has deployed one Guardia Civil helicopter to Mauritania and two more to Dakar. There was supposed to be an Italian boat, but as of this fall it was getting repaired. Finland promised to send a plane. There was a Portuguese destroyer operating far out to sea in the Cape Verde Islands.

The second problem came in Africa. None of the larger craft were allowed to go anywhere near it, because both Senegal and Mauritania refused to permit anything that looked like a warship in their waters. And since rescue is the first responsibility under the Law of the Sea, Spanish vessels that encountered northbound cayucos often wound up just escorting them into the European Union.

Masses and Mobs

Spain's strong preference is to solve such matters over the negotiating table. Foreign minister Miguel Moratinos toured West Africa this fall to win local cooperation in the fight against clandestine emigration. Guinea, for example, got €13 million ($17 million) in aid and debt forgiveness. In return, Spain gets to farm out some of its investigative dirty work. Guinea agreed to send an "identification mission" to the Canaries to identify and repatriate 156 refugees suspected of being Guineans. Italy has similar bilateral agreements with Libya.

Senegal's president, Abdoulaye Wade, would not make a deal with Moratinos. Wade faces a tough election in February, and he is not about to sell out Senegal's immigrants for €15 million ($19 million) in development aid--although "co-development," as the Europeans put it, has been a big part of his governing philosophy. When Wade began to accept the repatriation of migrants to Dakar last summer, protests began. He had to shift the flights to the country's other airport in Saint-Louis, farther from the national media. When the protests continued, Wade stopped repatriations altogether. Many cayuqueros will campaign against Wade in February. Meanwhile, Yahya Jammeh, who in September was reelected president of neighboring Gambia ("for the next 40 years," as he put it), is closer to the mood of the African public. This fall, he told the Senegalese daily Walf Fadjri, "Nothing can stop illegal immigration. . . . This country only got its independence from Great Britain 41 years ago. To compensate for the exploitation to which our populations were subjected, our young people have the right to stay in Great Britain for the next 359 years."

In his demagogic way, Jammeh has a kind of point. Co-development may appeal to the post-Christian European conscience, but, economically speaking, it works less well than setting up a beachhead in the other guy's economy and just shipping money home. Indeed, a World Bank study has found that four countries got almost twice as much in remittances sent by their various emigrants ($116 billion) than they get in foreign aid. This is money that Africans earn themselves and can invest without the say-so of distant bureaucrats. Senegal is quickly changing its approach to emigration, much as Mexico did in the 1990s--seeing it less as a problem to be solved than as an opportunity to be seized. Emigration may look like a repudiation or an unpatriotic act. But it is also a smart business investment for the country, at least in the short term.

Yet there is a problem. The more people leave, the more incentive there is for others to leave. The more attractive Europe becomes (because the network of immigrant contacts gets larger and more savvy), the less attractive Africa becomes (because many of the best young people have gone). And vice versa. The process keeps ratcheting itself up. Those who remain see scarcely educated teenagers who have found jobs on the very lowest rung of the European ladder--stoop-laborers, latrine-cleaners--wiring back Western Union transfers of $300 a month. That's roughly the salary of a veteran school teacher or a government engineer with an advanced education. It's enough to allow the kid's parents to build another story on their house. What can the future of Africa look like under such circumstances? Well-meaning people like to talk about Africa's admirable ethical norms and systems of familial solidarity--and they're right to. But when we think of Africa in the future, we must think of Africa without those things. The rising generation has traded them for Baywatch, or whatever it thinks the West is.

Traveling through Africa, Moratinos threatened to send a "strong message" to the mafias that traffic in human misery. This has become a common trope. Antonio Camacho, the Spanish secretary of state for security, boasted recently of having broken up 25 "people-trafficking networks." The Dutch immigration minister Rita Verdonk said last summer that Spain's policy of amnesty was a mistake because "mafias see it as a positive signal." These mafias are smugglers, contrabandists. They "move people as if they were merchandise."

But do they really? At least any more than, say, United Airlines does? Looking at the traffic in Senegal doesn't leave the impression that they do. If this were a "mafia" operation, the same Moroccans who were organizing it a year ago would still be organizing it now. Yet, in Senegal at least, emigration remains a local enterprise. To run a boat full of immigrants, you need to get two reliable 80-horse-power motors, which can be bought for $4,000 in local currency. A cayuco costs about $10,000, and expenses will run you a few thousand more. Then several dozen passengers will pay between $1,000 and $1,400 each for the trip. Even with a one-in-eight chance of death at sea, or capture by police, paying that kind of money for access to the Western labor market does not sound like the sort of deal a rational, intelligent person would have to be bullied into.

"Mafia" is a word that makes European public opinion comfortable. It implies that if the continent can just solve a crime problem that it ought, morally, to solve anyway, then its immigration problem will go away. (Americans do something similar when they claim to oppose only illegal immigration.) Such talk can disguise a problem of will as a problem of conscience. It implies that leaders are (selflessly) addressing a humanitarian crisis, not (selfishly) addressing an immigration crisis. And it spares them the awkwardness of laying out why they consider immigration a crisis in the first place. Is it the immigrants' race? Their poverty? Their number? Their Muslim religion? In Spain, as elsewhere, these questions have scarcely been broached.

But massive immigration from poor countries to rich ones is not a matter of a few criminal ringleaders breaking the rules of the game. It is the game, and there is no end to it in sight. The farther away Europe pushes the jumping-off point, the wider the orbit of those who consider themselves right next door. The Spanish coastal enclave of Ceuta, just across the Strait of Gibraltar from the European mainland, is hemmed in by Morocco. But the people killed last year trying to storm the gate were mostly sub-Saharan Africans, not Moroccans. Of the 700 refugees currently residing in the camps there, 400 are Asians--some of them Indians who tried to reach the beaches of Ceuta on Jet-Skis, some of them Bangladeshis who tried to pass the barrier hidden in the chassis of trucks.

"It sends a chill down one's spine," wrote a Belgian immigration expert in Le Monde last September, "to learn that migrants have already mutilated their fingertips to make it impossible to take or recognize their prints." But if this is true, then why does it send a chill down one's spine? For a mixture of reasons. It is partly that we pity people driven to such lengths by poverty and misery. It is partly that we fear they are in deadly, desperate earnest, and are staking their claim to a continent inhabited by people who are not.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD. He is at work on a book on immigration, Islam, and Europe.