Image: African immigrants in Malta
Darrin Zammit Lupi  /  Reuters
African immigrants and refugees sit on a windowsill after a protest at Marsa Open Center, just outside Valletta, Malta, on Monday.
updated 7/29/2009 6:20:36 AM ET 2009-07-29T10:20:36

The boats used to arrive on Spain's Canary Islands almost daily, rickety vessels crammed with Africans hoping for a better life in Europe, and willing to risk a perilous journey at sea to get here.

Hundreds more are believed to have died each year, swallowed up anonymously by the choppy waters off Africa's coast. But experts say the numbers have dwindled dramatically this year, in large part because the global economic crisis is putting a damper on migrants' dreams of a better life.

In Spain, the number of illegal migrants arriving by sea has dropped from 38,180 in 2006 to just 13,424 last year. And the figures have continued to drop this year, according to the Interior Ministry.

In April and May, the ministry reported, not a single immigrant boat was intercepted off the Canary Islands, the first time that has happened in years.

"Clearly, the economic crisis is having an effect," Carmen Penalva, director of the Madrid office of the International Organization for Migration, told The Associated Press. "The appeal of immigration is economic, and when the economy is weak, immigration is weak too."

In the Caribbean, dozens of people remained missing after their overloaded sailboat capsized Monday after leaving impoverished Haiti, where migrants routinely try to reach the United States, the Bahamas or Turks and Caicos Islands to escape misery in the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation.

Less worth the risk
For Africans heading to Spain, the rapidly contracting economy is certainly less worth the risk than it was several years ago.

Unemployment in Spain is running at nearly 18 percent, with the construction and services industries particularly hard-hit. Both had been the main job destinations for immigrants who once could find well paid employment with no questions asked.

Even Spain's Socialist government, which long had a reputation for taking a generous view toward immigration, has begun to toughen its laws, allowing longer detentions of illegal immigrants and using one-time payoffs to encourage legal immigrants to leave.

Those immigrants that used Spain as a springboard to get elsewhere in Europe are finding the economic situation not much better in Germany, Italy, France and Britain.

Italy, where 36,000 immigrants arrived last year, has also reported a dramatic decrease in arrivals this year, mainly thanks to a deal with Libya to send back migrants the Italian navy intercepts in international waters without first screening them for asylum claims.

Greece saw some 246,000 arrests in 2008 — 25 percent higher than in 2007. Mostly from Asian, African and Middle Eastern countries, the migrants typically risk their lives to enter the country on rickety boats or inflatable dinghies from neighboring Turkey, paying large sums to traffickers who ferry them across to Aegean Sea islands.

Although Greek authorities have not released any figures so far for for 2009, human rights officials say there appears to be a small drop in arrivals by sea this year. Last month, Greek authorities launched a crackdown on illegal immigration, providing tougher sentencing for traffickers and allowing police to detain illegal immigrants for up to a year — an increase from the current official limit of three months.

Crack down on immigration
Italy's conservative government, has vowed to crack down on illegal immigration, which Italians increasingly link to crime. In early July, Italy's parliament gave final approval to legislation that allows unarmed citizen patrols and imposes tough measures aimed at fighting illegal immigration and boosting security on the streets.

French Immigration Minister Eric Besson has promised that by year's end officials will tear down camps set up by some 800 to 1,000 illegal immigrants in the northern city of Calais, not far from the entrance of the Channel tunnel entrance to England.

Spain has also taken dramatic steps in recent years to discourage immigrants from taking to the water, and to fight the Africa-based criminal gangs that profit off them.

Spain has stepped up Coast Guard patrols both in the Mediterranean and off the northwestern coast of Africa, investing in a satellite system to better monitor sea traffic and passing laws that make it much easier to return immigrants either to their home country or the country from which they departed.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has also signed bilateral pacts with several North African countries, including Morocco and Mauritania, to help them control their own coasts and borders.

Antonio Hermosa, spokesman for the Red Cross in the southern port of Almeria, told the AP that up to 99 percent of all approaching boats were intercepted at sea.

He said the boats, dilapidated vessels usually loaded with around 10 to 12 people, can now be spotted up to 37 miles (60 kilometers) off shore, about double the range of years past.

Hermosa also said that under the new pacts Spanish authorities can now send migrants back either to their home country of to the country from which they departed.

But experts say that as long as a vast disparity in wealth exists between Europe and Africa, the prospect of a better life will entice many to take the risk.

"Unfortunately, there will always be routes," said Penalva of the International Organization for Migration. "And there will be new routes because of people's desire to improve their lives."

More on: Migration

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