Sunday, 31 January 2010

A day on pirate bay

As I stand talking to the Guardia Civil officer at the port of Los Cristianos, a Peter Pan ship sharks up behind his patrol boat, silently, laden with pale Britons. But the vessels fail to collide: here, on Tenerife's southernmost shore, mass tourism thrives next to state-of-the-art border surveillance.

"The steak sandwich... it's so tender, you can't have one from the butcher like this," muses an elderly British woman, praising her and her husband's favourite lunchspot at the beachfront. "And with the camareros, we've learnt all the local sayings and everything." "But they're not from here, they're from the peninsula," retorts her interlocutor, a Teutonic gentleman on the table across. "Northern Spain... where is it? Andalusia? Galicia?" A Senegalese youngster appears, loaded with cheap sunglasses and sparkling bracelets that he tries to peddle, half-heartedly. The English husband waves him off. "Over there, they serve solomillo this thick, on a plate heated up to 700 degrees," his wife continues, lost in remembrance of steaks past. "It's right there, on the plaza, next to the Chinese restaurant. You can't miss it."

Most of the Senegalese working the seaside promenade probably arrived here by cayuco - a Spanish term applied to large Senegalese fishing vessels or gaal - back in the day. It's hard to be sure, since they're not keen to discuss it. They gather in little cliques, then branch out to different tables, then gather again. No one seems to buy a thing off them. More business - in the shape of bare-bellied Britons - streams into the Asian-run shops promising Bloody Hell Offers on Ciggies. Bulk buy cheap price: Lambert and Butler, Benson and Hedges, Mayfair, Royals, Drum. Nestling next to the Peter Pan, the Jolly Roger ship also lures its fair share of visitors. Pirates still abound at this port - Spain's second busiest for passenger traffic, according to the customs police viewing the spectacle from the pier.

Out there, past the sunglass vendors and pirate ships, the Guardia Civil waits for cayucos to arrive. Their patrol boat is specially furnished for the purpose of tracking down near-capsizing fishing vessels: it's manned 24 hours a day, ready to set out whenever the signal comes through. These days, nothing. The radars and thermal cameras of Spain's maritime borders surveillance system - SIVE - only pick up commercial vessels, patrol boats, large waves, sailing ships. Nothing more.

But the patrolling, coordinated through an intricate web of control centres stretching from Dakar to Warsaw, continues unabated. The centres and agencies are tied together in an ever-tighter mesh encompassing Spain's Guardia Civil, the EU's Frontex border agency, Spain's sea rescue service, the Armada, the Red Cross, and police forces and gendarmeries from a dozen or more European and African countries. In their wake follow a flurry of obscure acronyms and cryptic labels - CCRC, CECON, HERA, SEA HORSE, NOBLE CENTINELA, ALFA-INDIA - referring to transnational border control centres and surveillance projects that fan ever further out from European territory. But this need not bother the British and German carnivores ashore, nor the ferry passengers lounging between the patrol boat and an emergencies-equipped Red Cross trailer out at the pier.

"The problem's being cut at the root," says the Guardia Civil official. "Here we can't contain the migration flows - it has to be over there." He means the Gambia, where he was recently on mission, and neighburing Senegal: my next stops on this fieldwork trip.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Strong winds at the edge of Europe

Fuerteventura, island of fierce winds and a few too many sandblasted northern Europeans, is my starting point on this anthropological roundtrip to West Africa. After the dunes and gloomy resorts of the north, this Canary island's capital - Puerto del Rosario - comes as a surprise. Sleepy and rundown, with streets named after long-dead comandantes and almirantes, Puerto feels like a bordertown - the African coast might be 100km away, but the frontier is never far off. The navy, Guardia Civil, and assorted state agencies line the seaside promenade; Sahrawi women in loose, pastel-coloured robes and black Africans mingle with local builders, port workers, brothel staff and discombobulated tourists.

The crisis of the pateras - small fishing boats carrying clandestine migrants from Tarfaya in Western Sahara - has receded, and spectacularly so. The island's detention centre for foreigners, El Matorral, held a couple of thousand Africans in its heyday a few years back; now it's empty, says a local aid worker, with a smile and a shrug. Funding's being cut, either because of the economic crisis battering Spain or the drop in boat arrivals, or both; queues of downcast African migrants no longer line up in front of NGO offices. Spain's government is claiming "victory" in the "battle" against clandestine migration, and says it's thanks to increased policing in the Canaries, at sea and on African soil that numbers have dropped. But is that the whole story? And what is happening beyond those inviting waves, which seem to have morphed into a solid, almost impenetrable border since the boats started arriving en masse in the middle of the last decade? That's what this blog will try to unravel.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

From Europe to West Africa (and back)

Time to embark – my PhD fieldwork on clandestine migration from West Africa to the southern fringes of Europe is kicking off. The project – and this blog – will be about borders, those who cross them, and those who labour on behalf of the EU’s citizens to keep them in place. It will be about the chasm between Africa and Europe, and what’s to be found in this liminal and little-known space.

I’ll be posting stories, snippets, grumbles and witticisms here throughout 2010, first from the Canary Islands where a trickle of African fishing boats has triggered European panic about a ‘flood’ of ‘illegals’ in recent years. The journey will continue in Senegal and then perhaps veer towards Mali, the Gambia, Mauritania and beyond. The travellers I encounter will give shape to my trip through Europe’s southern backyard. Please comment on any of the postings, or get in touch!