"Nothing is true, nor is it a lie?" - Nieves Garcia Benito. A powerful and moving essay on the indifference of Europe to dead migrants whose lives end on Spain's beaches

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"Nothing is true, nor is it a lie?"
by Nieves Garcia Benito

- a powerful and moving essay on the indifference of Europe to dead migrants whose lives end on Spain's beaches

Pictures of: i) two people sunbathing while a dead migrant lies nearby and ii) a coffin being removed from a beach where people in the backgound are playing: Pictures taken by Javier Balauz (link)

The following essay is a testimony from Tarifa, Spain, the nearest point to Africa in mainland Europe, by Nieves García Benito, who works for the Asociación Pro Derechos Humanos - Andalucía (Association for Human Rights - Andalucía). It highlights the frustration of someone with first-hand knowledge of the arrival of dinghies laden with migrants on the beach, accompanied by a steady stream of corpses that are washed up on the shore.

She addresses a debate that took place in Spain about whether there is indifference by the West towards the deaths of African would-be migrants, that started around a picture that was shot by photographer Javier Balauz (Pictures taken by Javier Balauz), of two tourists sunbathing while the corpse of a man who died trying to make the crossing from Morocco lay further along the beach. Looking at the situation in the Strait of Gibraltar, Nieves García Benito argues that there are hidden interests served by the current situation, and that while there there are hundreds of dead people who are not killed by anybody, a different immigration law, or even the absence of an immigration law, would save hundreds of lives.

"Nothing is true, nor is it a lie?"
by Nieves García Benito

"On 13 July 2001, photographer Javier Bauluz shot the image, on a beach in Tarifa, of a couple of beach-goers - on the left - sitting under an umbrella and, somewhat further - to the right -, the dead body of a drowned immigrant man. The author entitled the photograph "The Indifference of the West". The picture travelled all around the world, and was even published in the New York Times.

The journalist Arcadi Espada, winner of the Espasa de Ensayo prize for his book "Diarios", wrote an article about this picture in which he tries to discredit the image itself by stating that it is fictitious, and as such, doesn´t show the truth. That, as a result of being taken from a deceptive angle, it doesn´t show a real image, and much less the indifference of the West towards the deaths in the Strait of Gibraltar.

The debate itself may seem the typical exchange of blows between colleagues from the same profession, or the old dispute between truth and fiction, which besides, is very much a current debate. If I may, it could even seem to be a discussion at the bar of a pub. Nonetheless, as the object of contention are different points of view, different glances, over a space, the Strait of Gibraltar, where, for the last 14 years, there has been no stopping the flow of corpses arriving to its northern shore, from here, from Tarifa, we want to contribute a little more information, so that the readers´ glance may be enriched and may start building up its vision from a wider foundation. This is our hope.

What is happening in the Strait of Gibraltar?

As a result of the Spanish Ley de Extranjería 4/2000, whose origins lie in the 1990 Schengen European Treaty, the large majority of sub-Saharan and Moroccan citizens who apply for entry visas to Europe have their applications denied. With a visa, they would cross the Strait in a ferry, which would result in the problem of the corpses disappearing. As the law precludes this possibility, the citizens, who are pushed to migrate by the economic conditions in their country, and are aware of economic circumstances in Europe, where there is wealth, and consequently employment, see themselves obliged to make contact with groups who own other means of transport - dinghies or zodiacs - with the aggravating circumstances that it is more expensive and dangerous for their own lives. This illegal crossing of the Strait entails exorbitant benefits to those who control it, as a result of the abundant and urgent demand (for their services). The average number of persons on a zodiac is 55. The cost of the trip is around 1,500 euros. This means of transport has been in use since 1989, which gives us an idea of the economic sums that are at stake, without taking into account the second part of the journey - from Tarifa to the workplace - which, according to information obtained from Moroccan workers, is around 600 euros.

On 2 November 1989, eighteen dead bodies appeared on Los Lances beach in Tarifa. Since then, until 2 January 2003 when seven drowned persons appeared, the number of deaths has been impossible to count. The interior ministry has given a figure of eight hundred proven deaths. The Andalusian Defensor del Pueblo (Ombudsman), taking into account the real nature of the Strait - with currents, 100-km/h winds, cetaceans, cargo ships, petrol tankers, bodies appearing on the northern coast of Morocco - claims that the deaths during these fourteen years could be over two thousand.

Living on the beaches of the northern shore, there are hundreds of us Europeans - fishermen, workers, officials, doctors, windsurfers, tourists - who know all about the constant appearance of dead bodies, from what we have experienced with our own senses. The media have been informing all of Europe about these events for the last fourteen years. When citizens from this shore have taken care of shipwrecked persons they have been called charitable, and have even received official awards; when the Guardia Civil take the dead bodies out of the way, they are told that they are undertaking humanitarian tasks; when professional photographers have shot certain images - rather horrifying - they have repeatedly been awarded prizes.

If I may, as a citizen living on the beach front and who has seen more than one dead body, as a result of my nature, as a human being, I wish never to see any more corpses on our beaches. However, since that 2 November of 1989 this wish has not been fulfilled. The situation seems unchanging and is reaffirmed by events, on a daily basis. It appears that the illegal crossing of the Strait produces some important economic benefits, in spite of leaving hundred of dead bodies in its tracks.

The strait of Gibraltar: a space of indifference

Not for the economic goals of the electrical companies that have planned the transnational energy network for multinationals from the energy sector for which a 400,000 volt cable has been made to pass under its waters, in spite of opposition by towns on its northern shore, and a second one is currently being laid. They also maintain a gas pipeline in its waters which supplies natural gas drawn from Algeria to the rest of Spain, except for the coastal towns. It is said to be not for NATO, which is examining the possibility of expanding its operation to control merchant traffic to the Strait of Gibraltar. Not for the great multinational oil companies for whom its waters represent a safe and short passage to transfer crude oil from its places of origin to the places where it is refined. Not for hundreds of entrepreneurs - in the primary sector and in prostitution - who have provided themselves with a supply of illegal sub-Saharan and Moroccan workers, as very cheap labour, for the last fourteen years. In actual fact, these financial groups are not indifferent to the Strait of Gibraltar, as it brings them substantial economic benefits. These financial groups keep, and will continue to keep, this Strait just as it is. Like this. That is, it is in their interest to do so. It is obvious that they will not push for a change - something different. Their indifference towards the dead persons is real. They don´t even remotely consider the possiblity of experiencing any change in the sum of their profits.

For the authors of the Ley de Extranjería (European governments) it does seem to be a space of indifference, when this very law, the law on immigration (or its absence), with different wording, would prevent the certain death of thousands of Africans.

Yes it is (a space of indifference) also, for the millions of citizens of democratic Europe who, in spite of being people of good will, have not prevented, not with their words nor with their deeds, the implementation of a Ley de extranjería that carries, inherent within it, the real death of thousands of persons. Many among us, from Tarifa, have asked for this law to be derogated. What we got as a reply was silence. After fourteen years the problem is nor being resolved: it is getting worse. Is this not indifference, by any chance?

The Strait of Gibraltar: a space of fiction

A fictional space is a space of lies. Even if it is pitiful, it still remains a lie. In the Strait, on the beaches of Tarifa, terrible things are happening that the person on the street is unaware of. It seemed like pure theatre. The sea brings drowned persons, almost never when there are storms, in which case they drown among the rocks that are three metres away from the shore. The persons who are making the crossing have paid exhorbitant sums of money although it is very difficult for them to earn it. Dead people appear, who haven´t been killed by anybody. Who truly kills them? The dinghy-captain, another wretched person who undertakes the journey as well? The law? Rather, it seems like a horror story in which the culprit fails to appear. They say that the local people are showing solidarity, when what they are doing is cleaning up the beaches of dead people. The complaints that are voiced never receive any answer. Those of us who help the "illegals", to stop them dying at the next attempt, are fined. Using the same camera angle, in the daytime it is possible to photograph Europeans with splendid smiles setting out for Tangiers on a ferry and, in the early morning, generally, the Moroccans arriving in a zodiac with hypothermia requiring their immediate hospitalisation, or with first-degree burns on their legs and buttocks. Without setting it up, without a special angle, with a special angle, in the daytime, at night, anyone can take a picture of a drowned person. Journalists recount the tragedy, some people who accuse the West are accused of being liars. And it has been like this for fourteen years.

The trick

Where is the trick in this photographic drama?

Some may say that a photograph like the one shot by Javier Bauluz is one more cloud in the fog that is falsifying history, little by little. Because the fact that two persons appear to be indifferent doesn´t mean that all the people are indifferent. Others may hold the opinion that it´s lucky that there are photographers like Javier Bauluz, who recount what is happening, and draw conclusions indicating that concrete events have global implications, that it goes beyond the instant that has been captured.

Where is the trick in the drama of the dead persons?

I often ask myself, every time that drowned persons appear, every time that I see live persons who have arrived on the zodiacs, if what I am living through is the product of a bad dream and in reality, it is just a lie. There are no drowned persons. They come over in a ferry to work. That on 2 November of 1989 I didn´t see eighteen corpses in front of my terrace. The women who arrive do not become prostitutes. The Moroccans who call me from Almería all have their papers in order. They go on holiday to their countries and can bring their wives if they want to. There aren´t any minors under the axles of lorries or hidden in the fields of Tarifa. Fatima wasn´t kidnapped so that her family would send over the 100,000 Ptas (600 euros) to pay for the trip from Tarifa to Almería ... I answer myself, "If it wasn´t for indifference and hidden interests, this would have ended long ago". Nonetheless, I read the press titles from 2001, "Avalanche of migrants in Tarifa", and also, more recently, in 2002. Of course, if the country´s government considers the number of people who make the crossing between the 700 million Europeans and the 800,000 Africans an avalanche, what am I to think? Why does the government lie? Or would it have been better if more of them had drowned, so that only half of them would arrive?

With the photograph or without it. Whether the issue is written about, or it isn´t, here, in Tarifa, hundreds of drowned persons have arrived. Thousands, in the waters of the Strait. And these beaches represent indifference. The head-on violence, the separation between living and dead. There are live persons who are tranquil, and dead persons who are very dead indeed. The live persons who are here can´t do anything because they are already dead when they arrive. Other "live persons" can do something about it. They don´t. From the absolute subjectivity of titles, here we are aware that if it wasn´t for the indifference/interests of the governments of the West there would not have been any more dead persons in the Strait for a long time.

I wish the the photograph by Javier Bauluz had been a lie. I wish it was a product of his imagination and that it was "immortal blackmail" as Arcadi Espada said. In the strait of Gibraltar there would never have been drowned men and women. The dead persons would have only been fakes. Fiction."

Nieves García Benito
Asociación Pro-Derechos Humanos de Andalucía, Tarifa

Pictures of: i) two people sunbathing while a dead migrant lies nearby and ii) a coffin being taken from a beach where people are playing: Pictures taken by Javier Balauz (link)

Article published in Mugak, first quarter 2003 no22 (translation and introduction by Statewatch)


Spain/Italy: Dinghy deaths continue

As EU governments prepared for a summit in the Greek seaside resort of Porto Carras on 20-21 June 2003, where they agreed an increase in the level of funding allocated to combat illegal immigration, news filtering through from the southern borders of the Union reminded them of the human cost of the prohibitionist approach that is being taken to combat immigration.

A boat heading from Tunisia to the Italian island of Lampedusa laden with around seventy passengers sank on Saturday 13 June, according to the account of three survivors. Around seven corpses were subsequently found, while the remaining migrants are missing, presumed dead. Another boat, that set off for Italy from the Libyian coast, and carried over 250 migrants, sank on Friday 20 June in the high seas near the port of Sfax, in an incident that is believed to have caused over 200 deaths, 41 survivors were rescued, and 12 corpses were found during rescue operations.

In the run-up to the European summit, shipwrecks were also being reported from the Spanish coast, particularly the Canary Islands. On 2 June 2003, two dinghies carrying migrants were travelling towards Fuerteventura, when they were spotted by a high-tech integrated external surveillance system (SIVE) off the coast of Tuineje, on the southern part of the island. The official version of the accident, reported in El País, indicates that as a Guardia Civil launch approached the dinghies, the passengers on one of the dinghies stood up, causing it to overturn. Survivors indicated that twelve people had fallen into the sea, one of whom was rescued, and the dead bodies of nine of the remaining eleven were found in the following days.

The dynamics of another incident in which nine migrants are believed to have died (the bodies of two others are missing) on 10 June, were similar. As the passengers on a dynghy carrying 25 migrants were being lifted into a Guardia Civil rescue launch, they reportedly stood up because the dinghy looked like sinking, causing the boat to overturn and falling into the sea. Sixteen were rescued. On 31 May, 15 migrants disappeared in similar circumstances off the coast of Fuerteventura.

In the latest incident, in the early morning of 14 July 2003, two migrants drowned in a shipwreck in Tarifa, and their bodies were found by Guardia Civil rescue launches. El País estimates that a minimum of 62 persons have died trying to reach Spain this year, although published figures tend to be lower than the reality because many of the corpses of migrants who die trying to reach Spain are never found.

El País 3.6, 10.6, 11.6, 15.7.03; il manifesto 21.6 Agence France Press 17.6.03, 24.6.03.

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