July 21, 2006

Stranded Africans symbol of Europe migrant dilemma

By Jason Webb

MADRID (Reuters) - A boatload of desperate Africans rescued
off Malta has become a symbol of Europe's immigration dilemma,
with the Spanish fishermen who saved them hailed as heroes as
countries haggled over who should take them.

After days of diplomatic negotiations, a group of around 50
migrants, most of them Eritreans, left Malta on board two
Spanish military planes. They had arrived on the Mediterranean
island earlier on Friday aboard the Francisco y Catalina which
had saved them from a rickety boat on July 14.

The Africans, many Eritreans who said they were fleeing the
danger of war, berthed in Malta on Friday afternoon. They will
be largely divided up among Spain, Malta, Italy, Andorra.

In Spain, the fishing boat's crew has been praised for
saving the migrants.

"What they did shows the sort of men they are," Pepi Irles,
wife of the boat's captain, told reporters from the family home
in Alicante, southern Spain.

The Spanish government said it would award the crew a merit
medal for saving 51 lives. Yet it had also tried to ensure it
received as few of the migrants as possible.

A poll by the Centro de Investigaciones Sociologicas showed
38 percent of Spaniards see immigration as the country's
biggest problem, ahead of crime, terrorism, and the economy.

A huge foreign influx into Spain, a country previously
unaccustomed to migrants, has swollen its population by 10
percent since 2000. The Socialist government launched an
amnesty for illegal migrants in 2005 but this year has been
struggling to stem a flow of Africans arriving in the Canary
Islands in small boats.


The growing number of illegal migrants seeking to escape
poverty has become one of Europe's biggest political issues.
European and African governments agreed to crack down on human
trafficking at a meeting in Rabat earlier in July but many
observers called the deal vague.

Malta, which is also worried about its growing immigrant
population, refused to even let the Francisco y Catalina enter
the port of Valetta until Friday, after a deal was brokered.

Finally, Spain agreed to take 18 of the migrants. Italy
agreed to take 10 and Malta eight. Tiny Andorra, with a
population of only 70,000 and an economy built around tourism
and skiing, was prevailed upon to accept five.

The remaining 10 will be handed over to the care of the
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Spanish
government said.

The fishermen said they felt they had no choice but to save
the Africans. But they also said they were losing money stuck
off Valetta and that, after seeing what has happened this time,
other boats might leave migrants to their fate.

"They were desperate, they'd almost run out of water and
food," crew member Antonio Baeza told newspaper El Pais.