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Mauritania asks for help with migrant tide

Mauritania appealed for international help on Thursday to stem a tide of African migrants trying to leave its shores for Europe as Spanish ministers pledged their support.
/ Source: Reuters

Mauritania appealed for international help on Thursday to stem a tide of African migrants trying to leave its shores for Europe as Spanish ministers pledged their support.

Traffic on the established migration route has mushroomed in recent weeks, with scores of young Africans leaving Mauritania’s Atlantic coast every night in rickety fishing boats, hoping to reach Spain’s Canary Islands and find work to send money home.

Many die on the treacherous voyage of nearly 500 miles. “We cannot resist this growing pressure. We need help,” Prime Minister Sidi Mohamed Ould Boubacar told Spain’s El Pais newspaper.

“A country can not confront a phenomenon like this alone.”

Spain to get involved
Spanish secretaries of state for foreign affairs and security, Bernardino Leon and Antonio Camacho, flew in to meet their Mauritanian counterparts on Thursday and were expected to visit the northern port of Nouadhibou, the main transit point.

“We are going to put in place control systems developed jointly between the European Union, Spain and Mauritania,” Leon told reporters after meeting Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall, the head of the military junta which seized power last August.

“We are facing a phenomenon which is overwhelming Mauritania and Spain,” Leon said in the capital Nouakchott.

More than 900 immigrants have reached the Canaries since Saturday. Many more have been forced to turn back after getting lost and running out of food, and the Red Cross estimates that more than 1,000 have died this year attempting the crossing.

At least 77 more immigrants arrived in the Canaries overnight in three boats, Spanish state radio reported.

On Wednesday, Spain said it would provide the west African country with boats to patrol its 470 mile coastline as part of a package of measures to help its Canary Islands.

Staging post 
The deserted beaches around Mauritania’s port of Nouadhibou have become a major staging post for migrants from across West Africa after Morocco — previously a favored route  —tightened border security under pressure from the European Union.

A Spanish hospital ship recovered the bodies of 24 migrants some 85 miles off Nouadhibou on Wednesday while at least 34 were detained overnight in already crowded police stations after their attempts to cross failed.

Around 170 migrants are being detained in police stations around Nouadhibou, and 70 more detained at sea are on their way, Red Crescent officials said.

“We try to warn them of the risks but they are deaf to what we say,” said Ahmedou Ould Haye, head of the Mauritanian Red Crescent’s Nouadhibou mission, which is caring for detainees.

“Their only objective is to get to Europe, whatever the price, and you can’t pay more dearly than your life. For them it’s double or quits: I succeed or I die,” he said.

Local officials estimate there are 10,000-15,000 West Africans, mostly from Senegal and Mali, in and around Nouadhibou trying to scrape together enough money to make the crossing.

A network of fixers can book a place in long, thin traditional fishing boats called pirogues for 150,000 ouguiya ($550), much cheaper than the old route through Spain’s North African enclaves of Ceuta or Melilla, migrants say.

“Die or succeed is the motto,” said Mamadou Ba, from Senegal, who like his fellow would-be migrants was eager to be repatriated and freed quickly so he could set off again.

“Each hour that I lose here, I’m losing a lot of my future,” he said, lying under a blanket on the police station floor.