Spain to toughen up its borders in Africa


SPAIN: Spain is to take urgent steps to strengthen and raise the barrier fence separating its two north African enclaves from neighbouring Morocco. At least nine men have died, and dozens more have been injured, as thousands have tried desperately to climb the razor wire frontier into Ceuta and Melilla.

The authorities have been unable to prevent these almost daily incursions by sub-Saharan immigrants trying to reach Europe. In an attempt to stem the tide, the government announced yesterday that it will be sending reinforcements of soldiers and civil guards, as well as helicopters equipped with infrared vision, to guard the frontier.

In the latest assault in the early hours of yesterday morning, more than 500 men staged a raid on the wire, armed with wire cutters, rudimentary step ladders and thick leather gloves. Sixty-five of them succeeded in reaching Melilla yesterday, where they joined the 300 who made it on Monday night and many hundreds more who crowd into the temporary facilities set up by authorities.

Many of the would-be immigrants - mostly men, but a few women and some with babies and small children, from countries such as Mali, Cameroon, Guinea-Bissau or Sierra Leon - have trekked for months across Africa to reach Europe.

They have usually paid their life savings to ruthless gangs of people-smugglers who con them into believing that Europe is a promised land where they will find work. The gang bosses hide their human cargo in woods near the border and escort them to the fences, where they leave them to their fate.

Every day local hospitals and first-aid posts treat casualties for broken bones, concussion and bruises. Some of them have severe cuts on their hands, and the wires are littered with gloves and abandoned clothing.

The presidents of the two enclaves arrived in Madrid yesterday for urgent talks with prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero to stress the dangerous overcrowding in their territories and demand drastic moves to prevent urgent incursions.

Juan José Imbroda, the president of Melilla, blames Morocco for failing to put a stop to the human traffic. "The government must put pressure on Morocco to halt these mass incursions," he said.

Morocco sends thousands of its own people to Spain and into Europe to find work. But in recent years it has also become a country of transit for tens of thousands of sub-Saharan Africans - some with health problems, such as Aids - which puts a severe strain on its facilities and risks a spread of infection.

Next week a European investigation team will visit the region.