Desperate Straits at Gibraltar

An immigrant is helped on board a Spanish emergency services boat off in the frigid waters of the Strait of Gibraltar on December 3, 2012.
AFP PHOTO/Marcos Moreno

By Marcos Moreno

The Strait of Gibraltar is one of the main crossings for illegal immigrants seeking to get to Europe from Africa. Almost every night, dozens of desperate people, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, tackle the stretch -- 14 kilometres at its narrowest point -- that separates the most northern tip of Morocco and the most southern point of Spain, in Andalusia.

They undertake the journey in a ramshackle array of boats, often tiny inflatable dinghies that are powered by no more than plastic paddles. Death is close by, as the ocean swirls with violent currents buffeted by strong winds. Their fragile pathway -- invisible to massive freighters -- also transects some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

An inflatable dinghy carrying a group of immigrants hoping to cross the ocean to reach Europe on December 3, 2012.
AFP PHOTO/Marcos Moreno

I’m a freelance photographer in La Linea de la Concepcion in southern Spain, just across the border with Gibraltar. Several times a week, at 5:00 a.m., I board one of the Red Cross boats that crisscrosses the strait to look out for immigrant vessels, with the aim of photographing rescues -- or accidents -- at sea.

The day of December 3, when I took these photos, was particularly emotional.

The Red Cross isn't the only organisation on patrol. The Spanish and Moroccan coast guards also cover these waters. When the immigrants are intercepted by the Moroccans, they are taken back to the African continent, their European hopes smashed.

AFP PHOTO/Marcos Moreno

Their single-minded goal, then, is -- whatever the cost -- to touch Spanish soil or to be rescued by a Spanish vessel. They know that if they can do this, they will be taken to an administrative detention centre, where they will likely spend several months. It’s not a guaranteed ticket into Europe, but it keeps their hopes alive.

Spanish authorities are often at a loss trying to figure out the immigrants’ nationality and don’t know which country to send them back to. So, according to the law, these would-be immigrants are often simply set free.

That morning, we were very close to the Moroccan coast, near Tangiers. We spotted a tiny, yellow inflatable boat, crammed with a group of men and women.

A Moroccan patrol vessel was headed towards them. Because we were clearly in Moroccan waters, the Spanish were obliged to let the Moroccans handle the operation.

Moroccan authorities rescue immigrants in the Strait of Gibraltar, on December 3, 2012.
AFP PHOTO/Marcos Moreno

But when the people on the dinghy saw we weren’t going to help them and realised the Moroccans would pick them up, they suddenly leapt into the frigid waters and started swimming in our direction. The Moroccans grabbed one of the women and hoisted her onto the patrol boat. At the first opportunity, she slithered away and jumped overboard.

Eventually, everyone from the dinghy made it to the Spanish boat.

The Moroccans did not insist on taking them, and turned to leave the scene. Once they realized that they were safely on board our ship, the rescued immigrants broke down in relief.

After the rescue: Immigrants react after being plucked from the seas by Spanish crews on December 3, 2012.
AFP PHOTO/Marcos Moreno

A man prays after boarding a Spanish rescue vessel on December 3, 2012.
AFP PHOTO/Marcos Moreno

An exhausted immigrant collapses on the deck of the Spanish rescue boat.
AFP PHOTO/Marcos Moreno

A total of four immigrant boats were intercepted that day -- three by the Spanish and one by the Moroccans. Those “lucky” enough to fall into Spanish hands were taken to a bigger boat, which would take them to a reception centre at the little Andalusian port of Tarifa.

I don’t know where they were from. It was almost impossible to communicate because they generally knew only a few words of Spanish, mixed with broken English.

These are heart-rending scenes to witness. There’s so much despair and and sadness in these attempts to cross.

I was there as a journalist, but that morning outside Tangiers I also helped pull two immigrants from the water, and stopped a Red Cross rescuer who’d lost his balance from pitching overboard. I started to feel more like a rescuer than a photographer. I guess it’s sometimes inevitable to be torn between roles.

An immigrant from Africa reacts after he is picked up by Spanish rescuers, December 3, 2012.
AFP PHOTO/Marcos Moreno