EU to Aid Spain in Stopping Flood of Illegal African Immigrants

The European Union will deploy planes, boats and rapid reaction aid teams from its member states to deal with a new flood of African illegal migrants trying to reach Spain's Canary Islands, EU officials said Tuesday.

EU Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner Franco Frattini said the EU "will provide operational support as fully as we can to the Spanish government to deal with an urgent and difficult situation."

He said the EU's external border security agency, Frontex, would send two emergency coordination teams to the Canary Islands, which has been at the receiving end of illegal migrants coming from western Africa.

CountryWatch: Spain

Spain's Deputy Prime Minister Teresa Fernandez de la Vega said her government and regional authorities on the Canary Islands could no longer cope and needed emergency help as quickly as possible.

"We are now faced with a situation which has grown in proportion ... we need measures to be taken urgently," she said.

The Brussels talks were organized after the latest flood of immigrants — more than 1,500 in the past week, including small children — made their way to the Canary Islands, overwhelming Spanish authorities.

Frattini added Frontex would also coordinate in the coming weeks surveillance planes and boats, manned by soldiers and police, drawn from eight EU member states to prevent the would-be migrants from making their way to Europe.

"We already have eight which are prepared to express their solidarity and make available to us rapid offshore vessels and reconnaissance planes," Frattini said, adding the EU-mandated mission would patrol the coast off western Africa down to Gambia and Senegal, from where most of the would-be migrants are sailing.

Frattini said EU governments, including Spain, will be able to benefit from joint EU repatriation flights.

Fernandez de la Vega said Madrid hoped to set up so-called reception centers with other EU nations in key transit countries of Mauritania and Senegal, used by a majority of migrants to get to Europe, in Africa as an additional measure to stem the flow of those trying to escape their poverty.

Fernandez de la Vega met with Frattini and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, and other top officials to see what action the EU could take.

EU governments have already have agreed to stepped-up cooperation and coordination of resources such as search planes, boats and reception centers for migrants.

Frattini has called for EU governments to back plans for an emergency EU fund for quick responses to mass flows of migrants, as well as setting up a permanent plan for European patrols in the Mediterranean to intercept illegal migrants.

He said euro2.7 million (US$3.4 million) would be available this year for such actions.

EU officials have identified Senegal and Mali as top countries of origin, while top transit countries by which they are getting to Europe remain Mauritania and Morocco.

EU governments have said the poverty is the main reason why so many from the poorest countries of Africa try to flee to Europe and they have agreed to boost aid to the continent to try to keep migrants at home.

Other EU countries, including Italy, Malta and Cyprus have also had illegal migration problems in recent years.

Spain, however, has seen the highest numbers in recent months. Thousands of people try to reach Europe through Spain each year, an increasing number of them setting off by boat from Mauritania and Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara.

Last year authorities caught 4,751 African migrants trying to reach the Canary Islands, the vast majority packed into narrow, open boats that sometimes take weeks to make the dangerous voyages. At least 1,000 more people are believed to have died in the choppy seas.