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July 30, 2009

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Illegal immigrants feel pinch

THE boats used to arrive on Spain's Canary Islands almost daily, rickety vessels crammed with Africans hoping for a better life in Europe, and willing to risk a perilous journey at sea to get here.

Hundreds more are believed to have died each year, swallowed up anonymously by the choppy waters off Africa's coast. But experts say the numbers have dwindled dramatically this year, in large part because the global economic crisis is putting a damper on migrants' dreams of a better life.

In Spain, the number of illegal migrants arriving by sea has dropped from 38,180 in 2006 to just 13,424 last year. And the figures have continued to drop this year, according to Spain's Interior Ministry.

In April and May, the ministry reported, not a single immigrant boat was intercepted off the Canary Islands for the first time in years.

"Clearly, the economic crisis is having an effect," Carmen Penalva, director of the Madrid office of the International Organization for Migration, told reporters. "The appeal of immigration is economic, and when the economy is weak, immigration is weak too."

Boat flips

In the Caribbean, dozens of people remained missing after their overloaded sailboat capsized on Monday after leaving impoverished Haiti, where migrants routinely try to reach the United States, the Bahamas or Turks and Caicos Islands.

For Africans heading to Spain, the rapidly contracting economy is certainly less worth the risk than it was several years ago.

Unemployment in Spain is running at nearly 18 percent, with the construction and services industries particularly hard hit.

Both sectors were once the main job destinations for immigrants who could find well paid employment, with no questions asked.

Even Spain's government, which long had a reputation for taking a generous view toward immigration, has begun to toughen its laws.

Those immigrants who used Spain as a springboard to get elsewhere in Europe are finding the economic situation not much better in Germany, Italy, France and Britain.

Italy, where 36,000 immigrants arrived last year, has also reported a dramatic decrease in arrivals this year, mainly thanks to a deal with Libya to send back migrants.


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