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Immigrants Find New Life on Canary Islands

April 8, 2006

LOS CRISTIANOS, Canary Islands (AP) _ British and German sun-lovers flock here by the millions to loll on the white-sand beaches, eat fresh seafood in breezy outdoor restaurants and down one too many glasses of sangria at night. But another type of newcomer has inundated the Canary Islands in recent months _ desperate and hungry African migrants arriving on the spectacular coastline in packed fishing boats.

These Spanish islands have always been a gateway to Europe but more so this year than ever as access through other routes become tougher.

The influx worries locals who depend on the islands’ reputation as a tourist paradise for their livelihoods. Officials fear many more migrants will attempt the dangerous 600-mile journey as the weather improves.

If they do, officials say they will be dealing with an economic crisis, as well as a humanitarian one. The islands’ economy is based almost entirely on tourism, and even a small drop-off in paying visitors would be devastating.

``If this phenomenon increases, it could provoke a feeling of alarm and rejection among tourists,″ said Ricardo Fernandez de la Puente, manager of Asotel, an association representing 290 hotels and apartments in four of the seven Canary Islands. ``Tourists seek tranquility. They don’t want problems, and as soon as they see one, they change their minds and go somewhere else.″

Some 4,000 Africans have been caught trying to reach the archipelago so far this year _ compared to 4,751 for all of 2005. More than 125 people _ most from Mali and Senegal _ have been detained since Monday.

Worried tourism officials have met with local and regional authorities to address the issue, Fernandez de la Puente said. The islands’ justice minister has urged Spain to reinforce its border police, install more radar and have more patrol boats with Mauritania, a popular departure point.

Some 10 million tourists come to the Canary Islands every year _ including 3.6 million from Britain and 2.5 million Germans. Nearly 80 percent of the islands’ 1.9 million people lives directly or indirectly off tourism.

For the moment, the crisis has not seriously affected the tourist trade, which peaks in May before dropping off in the hot summer months.

Already, however, the tide of humanity has made for some extraordinary scenes.

On Wednesday, bemused tourists on Tenerife island watched from a ferry terminal as coastguards brought into port a group of 32 immigrants. Some snapped pictures of the migrants _ who had spent days at sea drifting with the wind. Another group of tourists waved excitedly at the newcomers from a catamaran where they were holding a party.

``I didn’t know that immigrants were coming here by boat,″ said Simon Jones, 44, a Londoner on vacation. ``I’m not worried, although if they start coming here, places like Tenerife will be less safe.″

``These things happen. You cannot do anything about it,″ said Piet Visser, a Dutch mechanic in his late 50s who was on vacation along with his wife. ``It’s very dramatic.″

Others said the arrivals had a sobering effect, making them realize how fortunate they are.

``It is a strange and depressing feeling as a tourist to see these people arrive here with hopes and fears,″ said 37-year-old Daphne Katsouros, of Bonn, Germany. ``It makes me feel bad and makes me think how lucky I am and how desperate they are.″

For decades, Africans migrants have set out from Morocco, sailing north across the Strait of Gibraltar to the Spanish mainland or westward to the Canary Islands. But a crackdown by Moroccan authorities has increasingly steered migrants to the islands, with Mauritania as the new departure point.

Since December, about 1,000 migrants have died attempting the four- to five-day journey, according to the Red Cross in Mauritania.

Those who make it to the Canary Islands are taken to detention facilities _ well away from the glamorous beach hotels _ where they are held until authorities can arrange for them to be repatriated, almost always within 40 days.

``Who pays for the care of the immigrants, for their medicines, for the patrol boats? I’m sure all this means that our taxes will go up,″ said Dutchman Frank Jansen, who has been running a restaurant along the oceanside for the last three years. ``Maybe it’s not going to be a problem in the first year, but it could be in the long run and then nobody would want to come to Tenerife.″

Others said they are confident nothing will keep vacation-crazy Europeans away from the great weather and beautiful beaches.

``There’s nothing to worry about. This is a great place to be. There are no crocodiles. There is no danger,″ said restaurant owner Javier de La Rosa. ``It’s unfortunate that things are so bad in Africa, but this is not a problem that is exclusive to the Canary Islands. It affects the whole world.″

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