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Opinion & Analysis

When tragedy unfolds in the bay

Photo by David Parody

A WhatsApp message on Monday brought home the human dimension of the tragedy that unfolded on Sunday morning in British waters in the Bay of Gibraltar.

A long-time journalist friend from Ceuta, Carmen Echarri, was reaching out to see if we had any news of seven people who were trying to reach Spain under the radar in a small boat.

She’d been called by a relative of one of those on board, desperate to hear something of their loved one after two days of silence.

We worked the phones, hoping his name would tally with one of the three survivors who managed to swim to safety in Gibraltar, that we could deliver good news to the family. But it was hope short-lived.

The Royal Gibraltar Police, no stranger to these situations despite the fact they are relatively uncommon here, gave us a number to pass to the family. They spoke, gathered details, but there was little comfort officers here could offer.

In Castillejos, the border town on the Moroccan side of the Ceuta frontier, a family now faces the unimaginable pain not just of loss, but of not knowing.

If three made it to safety, perhaps the others did too? On land, having entered without papers, they would likely lie low. Hope is the last refuge.

But the sea state was rough on Sunday, and the desperate plight of the four missing men is as stark as the reasons they risked their lives to cross the treacherous stretch of water that separates Africa from Europe.

For my friend in Ceuta, this is not an unfamiliar story, far from it. She has written the same story dozens of times over the years.

Writing in El Faro de Ceuta on Tuesday, she described how barely a day goes by without some family or other reaching out for help. The headline over her column, titled ‘The frontier of death’, said it all.

“Do you know how hard it is to hear a mother cry because her adolescent son sent her a photo climbing into a kayak never to be seen again?” she wrote.

“Do you know how hard it is for a father who only wanted to swim [to Ceuta] because his children are dying of hunger?”

All seven on the boat that capsized off Gibraltar on Sunday were from Castillejos and Tetouan, an area of northern Morocco plunged into social crisis after Covid-19 restrictions curtailed the cross-border trade with Ceuta that was the lifeblood of communities there.

Cutting the border flow was a decision driven by public health concerns, but it had a devastating impact on the ground as economic and social structures crumbled.

In search of a livelihood for themselves and their families, many Moroccans are now trying to enter Ceuta by swimming around the border fence stretching into the sea, while others attempt to cross the Strait of Gibraltar. Many don’t make it.

“What is happening here is a genuine drama,” Ms Echarri told me.

For the families of those who disappear, there is no official channel where they can seek help and information, so they turn to journalists and NGOs. Sometimes, that search ends in happy news. A relative who snuck through, another locked in a cell but alive. Too many times though, there is just the agony of the question mark.

Viewed from Gibraltar, all of this can appear as something that is happening on the other side of the world, even though it is unfolding on our doorstep.

But the wind, the tides, the luck of the roll can bring these people to our shores. Pause for moment and consider what it must take for a father, a mother, a young man or woman, a child, to take that gamble. Pause and consider the horror of it all going wrong.

If there is a solution to migration – not just from Morocco but from sub-Saharan Africa, from where people are often fleeing war and persecution - it lies on the southern shore of the Strait of Gibraltar and beyond, in providing sufficient opportunity and security at home to remove the need to risk life and limb in search of better fortunes.

But this is not a new phenomenon, so do not expect overnight solutions, or indeed at any time soon. What unfolded in the bay on Sunday is not going to stop, much as everyone, migrants and their families especially, wishes it would.

Gibraltar’s response to clandestine migration is stern. Once on land, people who enter unlawfully can expect to be arrested and returned forthwith, and to wait out their time till deportation at Her Majesty’s pleasure in Windmill Hill, irrespective of age.

It is an ugly reality of our size and the bit role we play in the region’s dramas.

In custody, the migrants are at least safe and cared for by a prison service and partner agencies who work with what they have. In parallel to organising deportation in accordance with the laws they are tasked to enforce, the RGP pulls out the stops to give news and comfort to relatives, working closely with law enforcement agencies and authorities in the countries of origin, whenever that’s possible.

And while the focus is now on what happens when migrants make it to land, it all starts out at sea, where we must ensure without excuses that we have the necessary capacity and systems in place to respond to anyone in distress.

Ultimately, as a community, we must ask ourselves, can we do more to help people in these circumstances? The answer, viewed objectively, is undoubtedly yes.

But officials here are conscious too of the so-called ‘efecto llamada’, the siren call of those who make it across, and the impact a softer approach could have on this community. Another ugly reality hard to address.

But in the end, it is incumbent on us to handle these awful cases with as much empathy and humanity as possible, our duty to never turn a blind eye to others in desperate need.

When a young man and two children who nearly drowned on a Sunday end up before a judge the following morning and in a cell by evening, that leaves a bitter taste in the mouth whatever the underlying realities of the situation.

Because ultimately, this is not a court story. This is a human tragedy.

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