Tragically, 69 migrants die off Costa del Sol as British tourists show grief for victims
At least 69 refugees have drowned off the Spanish Costas trying to cross the Med to safety from Africa.
Rescuers are patrolling the coast where 6,000 have arrived this year. One said: “We fear an avalanche.”
As tourists soak up the Spanish sunshine, patrol boats scour the Mediterranean in search of families who have risked everything to flee war, famine and torture.
As millions of Britons fly to the Costas on holiday, thousands of desperate people have undertaken a treacherous sea crossing to the same stretch of coast, to escape their home countries.
They travel in tiny inflatable boats, hoping for a new chance at life in Europe.
Rescuers told of an “avalanche” of asylum seekers crossing to Spain, with 6,000 arriving in the first five months of this year – more than double the number for the same period last year.
Tragically, 69 are known to have died in the attempt, including a boy of eight found in the sea near Almeria’s Playa de Los Muertos – the Beach of the Dead – where two men were also found dead.
British tourists nearby told of their sympathy for the refugees.
Kitchen installer Ian Crowther, 40, from Bournemouth, said: “I feel guilty that we’re having a lovely time with the family here when other parents are risking their lives to protect theirs.”
His son Aidan, 15, said: “I can’t believe we take boats out for fun and they’re taking them out to try and survive.”
Mum Clare said: “I cannot imagine how unsafe these migrants must be feeling in their own country to take the risks they have taken.”
Two armed ships have been moored at Almeria, just 90 miles from the African coast. They began patrolling at the weekend to help prevent more tragedies off the coast of Andalusia, where 2.76million Brits visited last year.
The vessels from European border and coastguard agency Frontex arrived amid fears the warmer weather would prompt people to attempt the crossing. A crew member said: “We’re here because of the immigrants. There are more of them.”
On Saturday the Spanish coastguard rescued 25 migrants on a boat 11 miles off the tiny island of Alboran.
In just two days, on June 21 and 22, a total of 414 displaced people were rescued from 16 boats along the 260-mile coast from Malaga to Murcia. Coastguards say they are regularly finding pregnant women and children from Africa who have fled after being raped by people-traffickers.
One six-year-old girl was found travelling with strangers on a rubber dinghy. She had been raped before leaving Morocco. A 10-year-old girl drowned when she was trapped alongside her mother under a capsized rubber boat carrying 33 people. The mother died on the way to hospital.
Captain Miguel Parcha, 57, captain of one of four Coastguard boats, with a crew of eight, said: “We hear terrible stories. Pregnant women and children raped, others have been tortured or seen family members murdered. Last year we were getting 200 a month but that’s gone up to 600 – and that’s just my boat.
“We had an avalanche of migrants a few years ago and I worry the same is happening again.”
Miguel is haunted by a photo he has of a six-year-old girl they saved, her eyes full of terror as she stares into the lens.
“This picture gives me goose bumps,” he says. “She was travelling alone, with no parents. I went to see her and despite the balloons [forensic gloves they inflate and draw faces on] and sweets we hand out, she was silent.
“She wouldn’t smile. Her eyes were full of sadness. We found out later from a Moroccan NGO that she’d been raped. Now she is being cared for by children’s services here.”
But Captain Parcha still has hope that some of those who make the journey will find a better life in Europe. He says: “I am friends with two women from Eritrea I rescued. They are in their 20s and both in Germany with visas. They are in education.”
The migrants typically pay traffickers around 1,500 euros to escape north Africa. The boats mainly leave Morocco in the dead of night. The journey can take anything from 12 to 36 hours. Often the huddled, terrified migrants are so dehydrated they are forced to drink sea water during the trip.
Those who survive are checked for signs of disease on arrival by coastguard crews wearing masks and white forensic suits against the threat of Ebola. Anyone needing help is seen by medics. They are then taken to internment camps while they find out if they can claim asylum or face deportation.
Last year most migrants arriving in Spain were from Algeria and Morocco but this year more are coming from sub-Saharan Africa.
Some 10,231 arrived in Spain during 2016, up 46% on the year before. And this year’s total is likely to be higher.
So far this year up to June 29, a total of 95,768 migrants have entered Europe by sea, according to the UN Migration Agency.
Almost 85% arrived in Italy and the remainder were divided between Greece, Spain and Cyprus.
Crisis talks are being held after overwhelmed Italy threatened to close its ports to the masses of migrants. Some half a million have passed through Italian ports since 2014 and numbers are on the rise again.
Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni has accused other European nations of “looking the other way”.
And the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, said: “This cannot be an Italian problem alone.”
But the Spanish coastguard fears that if Italy carries out its threat the burden will fall on them.
A spokesman said: “If the route from Libya to Italy were cut off or made more difficult, it would lead to an increase in numbers trying to cross to Spain. We’d see many more people arriving here. It simply transfers the problem from one area to another.”
They saved my life and gave me my dreams
A woman rescued by Captain Miguel Parcha and his crew described the coastguards as: “Heroes, heroes, heroes.”
Sara Brhanu, 25, is now living in Germany, pursuing her dream of becoming a nurse.
But a year ago she and 28 other migrants feared for their life after their boat got stranded off the coast of Spain.
She told the Mirror: “It was 17 hours from Morocco until Spain in the sea. I was scared.
“Our boat’s motor was broken, the food and water was finished. We could not see anything, no other boats. We lost direction also. Everyone was crying. Finally, thank God – it was a miracle for us – they arrived to help us. Everyone cried, cried, cried.”
Sara had fled enforced military conscription and the fear of religious persecution in her home country of Eritrea at the age of 18. She travelled through Algeria to Morocco, where she soon found an Algerian trafficker and handed over 1,500 euro.
During her journey she met a fellow Eritrean called Nemha, 22. After they were both rescued by Captain Farcha they ended up going to Germany together.
Sara is now celebrating, having received her German passport and papers. She said: “I not only owe those men my life, they have also given me my dreams.
“They are good people.”