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Dire Straits

Posted by Tom Haines, Globe Travel Writer  January 27, 2009 10:55 AM

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In the spring of 2003, after a week's reporting about the Islamic legacy in southern Spain, I spent a day in the town of Tarifa, set hard against the Strait of Gibraltar. While walking a street by the harbor, I came across a Red Cross office, and using my bad Spanish and the director's bad English, learned stories of the African immigrants who brave the seven-mile passage hoping for a new home in Europe.

In a blog post back then, I detailed a bit this epic setting between two continents and some of its modern traffic:

"The hills above Tarifa, the southernmost town in continental Europe, tumble toward the Strait of Gibraltar in swaths of soft green.

It was here, in the year 711, that the first Muslims crossed the nine miles of fabled sea and stepped ashore a peninsula inhabited by Visigoths, Christians, Jews and faithless others.

Today, when the sunlight is strong, the sky blue, villages, even houses, emerge from the hazy Moroccan ridges.

In our times, desperate Moroccans, mostly men from isolated regions in the Atlas Mountains, pay mafia traffickers, then wait for their own chance to ply these historic waters in small, unsteady boats. The motivation is not political, or religious, but economic. In Spain, beyond the wind turbines set on Tarifa's hilltops, orange groves and olive fields hold a chance for work.

The hopeful huddle and wait for the winds to calm and the waters to flatten, the only time a small boat has a chance of making the crossing. Still, when the boats push off from Africa, the short journey often ends badly, with passengers numbed from hypothermia, or, as happened 20 times last year, drowned."

I still have tacked to my desk in the newsroom a graphic from 2003 that appeared in the French news journal "Courrier International". A map entitled, "More and more foreigners in the world" shows the seven continents, with different sized arrows indicating the flow of people from one region to another. The biggest arrows: from South America to North America; from India and Southeast Asia to the Middle East; and from Africa to Europe.

The African immigrants more often come from south of the Sahara, and they make desperate attempts to reach many other points - including Spain's Canary Islands and the island nation of Malta - in addition to Tarifa.

For intimate images of some of these people and their lives in transit, see a recent posting at boston.com's The Big Picture.

africanimmigrant.bmp
A would-be immigrant after arriving at Spain's Gran Canaria off the coast of West Africa.(Reuters/Borja Suarez)

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