Nouadhibou… the perfect launch-pad for Canary Islands

EUROPEANS in Mauritania’s economic capital of Nouadhibou are there for work, to earn money, and they rarely bring their families with them.

Nouadhibou, which is the second city of this vast Saharan nation, on Africa’s west coast, suffers from frequent power cuts. And it doesn’t have a single cinema, concert hall, theatre or even a bar (alcohol is banned throughout the country).

There are no decent schools, and its only hospital lacks even a rabies vaccine. But to Africans looking to make their way to Europe to create a new life, Nouadhibou’s location, 800km south of the Canary Islands, makes it the most attractive of places.

This explains why the EU and Spanish authorities keep a wary eye on the thousands of small fishing boats moored there.

In 2006, when Morocco began cracking down on illegal immigration, the traffic, for people seeking a new life in Europe, moved south to Mauritania and Senegal, from where Spanish territory could be reached within five or six days.

Two years later, 108 rickety boats (cayucos), reached the Canaries from Mauritania. But, so far this year, not one has arrived there!

The sea crossing is, undoubtedly dangerous, yet it hasn’t stopped more than 31,500 people making the journey to the Canaries, successfully, in recent years.

However, as suddenly as the exodus started, it stopped! In 2008, 108 cayucos reached the Canaries from Mauritania. So far this year, not one has arrived. It really is a poser, but part of the answer can be found in Nouadhibou itself.

Mauritania is about twice the size of Spain, but has a population of just 3.5 million. The number of people living in Nouadhibou, where the economy depends on the fishing industry, varies between 180,000 and 300,000, but there are no reliable figures.

Nine years ago, Spanish police began a bold initiative to try to stop people from attempting a sea-crossing to reach Spain.

Authorities sent a team of five cops to train their Mauritanian counterparts, and a further 25 Guardia Civil officers joined them, working with six more local officers. And since then, they have operated as a single unit.

Chief Inspector Ignacio Rico, who leads the team, believed the key to containing the crisis was persuading Mauritania and Senegal to accept repatriations.

At the same time, the team introduced tough new laws, imposing prison sentences of up to five years on anyone involved in migrant-trafficking.

Now, thankfully, the Mauritanian team-leader, working with the Spanish police, says the situation is under control, adding: “But we haven’t solved anything in the long term.”

As a result, the trade collapsed,. But  the Spanish contingency have remained, supported by a Guardia Civil helicopter, along with two 30-metre patrol boats and a further two 15-metre  vessels.

But Captain Pablo Lorenzo, who has been here since 2006, believes the only way to prevent people from taking to the seas again is by maintaining a clear, visible presence.

“You have to remember that the Canary Islands is just five days away by boat,” he says. “But if you follow the route up from Central Africa that ends in Libya, it can take as long as a month to reach the European coast.”

Carlos Rodríguez, a Guardia Civil attaché at the Spanish Embassy in Mauritania, adds: “If, instead of our patrol boats, we just had a semi-rigid speedboat, do you think the situation would be like it is now?

“In countries like this, mistakes are costly. But if you can build up trust and create something that works, the best thing to do is to hold on to it.”

Inspector Ahmel Khaled, who heads the Mauritanian team working with the Spanish authorities, says the situation is under control, “but we haven’t solved anything in the long term”. Nouadhibou is a crossroads, with people coming and going all the time, and he confirms: “There are thousands of people who have come here with one aim – to earn enough money to get to Europe. They’re just waiting for their chance.”

Ahmel Khaled and Ignacio Rico spend most of their time gathering intelligence. The Spanish team have provided their Mauritanian counterparts with the technical assistance they need to monitor the fishing fleet’s activities.

At the same time, Mauritania has begun rejecting people from neighbouring countries with no paperwork, so they have no option but to return home. In 2013, it expelled 713 people, a total which rose to a staggering 6,463 last year.

The Spanish and Mauritanians have created a network of informants, which keeps them up to date with what is going on along the coastline near Nouadhibou.

Winning their trust has not been easy, but,

at the same time, the country’s respective governments have begun working closer, despite difficulties along the way. In 2008, democratically-elected President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi was overthrown by General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, ostensibly for reaching out to Islamist groups.

Initially, the Spanish Foreign Ministry condemned the coup, but it praised Abdel Aziz when he held and won free and fair elections in 2009. Since then, the Mauritanian authorities have worked closely with Spain.

Between 2007 and 2011, Spain invested around 150m euros in Mauritania, says Francisco Sancho, who, until recently, ran the Spanish state foreign aid organisation AECID’s operation in the country.

Among the initiatives funded by Spain is a 5m-euro project to distribute frozen fish to 126 stores throughout the country, and

the formula is working, for now!

But more and more people from Africa still want to get to Europe.



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Posted by on Dec 1 2017. Filed under Local News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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