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French Version

Spain and Morocco hold summit

Leaders discuss immigration and Western Sahara

Immigration will be at the top of the agenda when Morocco and Spain hold summit talks today after about a thousand would-be African immigrants stormed a border fence in the Spanish enclave of Melilla over two consecutive nights, 300 making it across.

The status of the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara will also tax the minds of Spanish Premier Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and Moroccan counterpart Driss Jettou in Seville, but the immigration issue is seen as the most pressing matter.

Madrid's Secretary of State for Immigration Consuelo Rumi praised Morocco for its efforts to stem the flow of illegal immigrants, which she said had helped to reduce by a third the number of makeshift vessels intercepted last year off the Spanish coast.

But the Melilla issue has revived the problem with Morocco, a transit point for would-be immigrants to Europe from across Africa, considering that EU states do not help it sufficiently.

Rabat would like to see Spain and the EU conclude agreements which would see the immigrants repatriated directly to their country of origin.

Away from Melilla, Spanish government sources have noted "a substantial improvement in Morocco's attitude" with regard to clamping down on pateras, the often barely seaworthy makeshift boats in which traffickers transport men, women and children across either the Strait of Gibraltar or to Spain's Canary Islands.

That cooperation saw interceptions of the boats increase 37 percent in 2004, when according to official Spanish figures 15,675 illegal immigrants traveling on 740 boats were detained.

In contrast, however, since the beginning of this year Spain says there have been nearly 12,000 attempts to cross the border between Morocco and the enclave of Melilla, which as Spanish territory in North Africa is a gateway to Europe's Schengen open-borders region.

A sticking point is the fate of Moroccan immigrant minors with a 2003 bilateral accord preventing Madrid from repatriating them if their families cannot be located.

As a result of the traffickers using the accord to concentrate on increasing the number of minors they take to Spain, the number of unaccompanied young immigrants in Spain hit 1,347 in the first half of this year, compared with 1,071 for all of 2004.

Madrid is to propose in Seville that Morocco and Spain co-finance "reinsertion centers" for such minors while also paying for personnel to run them.

That idea has angered Morocco's Association of Friends and Families of Clandestine Immigration, which says the plan amounts to "handing over a duty to Morocco which would take a big problem off Europe's hands."

Zapatero is to stress the importance of human rights in Seville but with particular emphasis on pro-independence Sahrawis languishing in Moroccan jails with several dozen on hunger strike since last month.

This year Morocco has prevented several Spanish parliamentary delegations hoping to visit the main Western Sahara town of Laayoune on a fact-finding visit.

Madrid is still awaiting Morocco's green light for a parliamentary delegation to go ahead but has welcomed the fact that UN envoy Peter van Walsum is due in the region.

Morocco considers the Western Sahara is part of its nation, but an Algerian-backed independence movement, the Polisario Front, claims sovereignty of the desert territory.

Casablanca,10 03 2005
Redaction
The Daily Star
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