The beach in Famara is well-known to the international surfing community. I’m not a surfer, but only know it from walking the long beach when the tide is out — I am a surfer of the web, not of waters.
On Saturday last, a glorious day, near a stretch of where luxury bungalows fetch the best property prices in Lanzarote, the northernmost of Spain’s Canary Islands and the closest to Morocco, some 125 kilometres away to the east, a lone small blue boat lay beached.
The name of the battaya, as the Spaniards call these open fishing boats, was whited out by a daub of paint. Its port of origin is unknown, but it came from Morocco.
On-board, under the crime scene tape from the Guardia Civil, Spain’s national police, were empty fuel and water tanks, orange life jackets, discarded clothes, athletic shoes and anything that was not needed in the new life those who were its passengers had embarked upon.
They were the lucky ones. In December, a battaya carrying 20 or so flipped on the rocky eastern coast of Lanzarote within metres of dry land and asylum for the refugees who risked it all. Seven drowned that day.
On Sunday, the day after that walk on Famara beach, I was on a car ferry from Lanzarote north to the port of Cadiz in southern mainland Spain. It’s a 30-hour trip.
Allowing ample time to get to know some others on board, making the trip in what is the off-season now that the British and German tourists have returned home.
One passenger was Mohammad, sharp, aged 32, a native Arabic speaker with reasonable Spanish and passable English. We struck up a conversation. He, it turns out, had made a trip on a battaya 16 years before, and had built up a new life for himself.
He is from Foum Al Oued, a small fishing village on the coast of southern Morocco. But Mohammad does not identify himself as Moroccan, preferring to describe his home as “Sahara” — the Western Sahara, Moroccan territory that has long sought independence.
“One day and one night,” he says was the length of the battaya trip, and there were a dozen or so one board, including three children and their mother. He still keeps in touch with them today.
“We set off at night and we waited for three weeks for the winds to be right,” Mohammad says. Normally, the prevailing wind blows to the east, making the currents too dangerous for what would a treacherous crossing in a small open boat. They waited until those winds stopped, then headed out to sea, using a compass alone to find the islands to the west. They were all soon seasick and there was no shelter on the battaya. They were lucky, Mohammad says, because they saw Lanzarote just as their petrol was about to run out, and the night was beginning to rise. They were able to slip ashore undetected.
According to Spanish law, once a refugee sets foot on land, they can claim asylum and begin the process of getting paperwork in order, and starting a new life. In general, the refugees are welcomed and are given the best chance at starting over.
Last week in Lanzarote, another battaya was intercepted before it could come ashore, and all on board were arrested to be returned to Mauritania.
Since 2015, when an estimated 1.3 million refugees then fled violence and unrest across Syria and Iraq and headed to Germany and western Europe, the Canary route has been largely closed down, and few make it.
Spain has a welcoming attitude, as long as it doesn’t involve trying to get into Spanish territory through the two enclaves they hold still in North Africa, Ceuta and Melilla. There, thousands sit across razor wire fences on Moroccan soil, waiting for any opportunity or weakness to rush the frontier barrier and overwhelm Spanish guards.
For Mohammad the last 16 years have brought him a job and money, and he makes a living as a cook in the restaurants frequented now by German and British tourists.
Once in Cadiz, he will head to the ferry crossing to Tangiers and meet up with family members. He plans to propose to his girlfriend and will be asking her father for permission to marry.
Mohammad’s story is a happy one. Sadly, there are so many who never make it, who are swamped by the waves, overturned by the currents, sink beneath the Mediterranean or Atlantic all in a last desperate bid for something better. And who can blame them? Sadly, too many view these refugees as a tsunami of mankind that must be repelled.
Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe.