The hope of a better life

  • Marine Rescue crew, Cruz Roja and lawyers are the contacts for those who have risked their lives at sea

  • The numbers of boats carrying immigrants who are trying to reach the Spanish coast have increased considerably since last year

For a desperate person who crosses the sea from Morocco in search of a better life, there is only the hope that the movement of the waves will stop on the other side of the Mediterranean. This is like Russian roulette, in which the bullets are the small rubber boats and the barrel of the revolver turns with the marine currents. They take this risk with about 50 other people, crammed together as they await the consolation of solid ground. Their relief is almost audible above the engine of the Maritime Rescue boat. Its occupants are the first to extend a hand to the immigrants who risk their lives at sea. They are the first link in the chain of urgent attention which these people receive in Spain, and as soon as they reach port Cruz Roja volunteers and lawyers from the Immigrant Representation Department take over.

Maritime rescue is a difficult job and a busy one, because these boats are constantly being spotted close to the Malaga coast. In the first six days of January alone, 178 immigrants arrived in Malaga on board four small boats, when in the whole of 2014 the total only amounted to 89. This is a change which began last year, in 2016, when 750 people were rescued, an unprecedented figure in the past decade.

Alejandro Rubio has been working in Maritime Rescue for 25 years and he knows well how the situation has been changing.

"At first all the boats were made of wood and about 17 North Africans would travel in them, hoping we wouldn't spot them so they could reach the shore. Now they are rubber boats which are designed to take eight people at most. More than 50 travel in them, nearly all from the sub-Sahara."

Alejandro works on the Salvamar Alnitak, the Maritime Rescue boat which is based in Malaga port. He was a captain in the merchant navy and salt water runs through his veins in conjunction with the adrenaline from every rescue. Alejandro explains that they are on duty 24 hours a day, waiting for a phone call which makes them swing into action. They then go out to look for the boat and, once they have located it, try to save its occupants.

That is the most dangerous moment. "They have been lost at sea for hours so they are pleased to see us. They stand up, and when we approach them they try to board our boat straight away," says Alejandro. The rescuers try to calm everyone down so that, when they are able to clamber on board, there is no danger.

Then it is time to return to port, and the immigrants' joy at being rescued begins to mingle with other thoughts. "They are happy because they have survived, but sad because of the misery that led them to risk their lives at sea," says Alejandro.

When they arrive in the city a Cruz Roja first aid post has always been set up. Laura Corral is one of the volunteers. She has spent just over a year helping people who have risked their lives in a small boat, treating the minor injuries they have sustained, such as small burns or bruises, and giving them assistance kits. If their injuries are more serious, they are taken to a hospital.

Laura says the gratitude of these people makes her feel emotional: "It is very satisfying to give them a hand, even though deep down you know you haven't solved their problems."

Elena Crespo feels the same. She is one of the team of lawyers from the Immigrant Representation Department who, every time one of these boats arrives in Malaga, set off to try to help the people on board in the best way they know: ensuring that their rights are respected.

"It is a privilege and a great responsibility to attend to these people from the first moment. You have to welcome them in the way they deserve, because they have been through a great deal," she says.

Elena knows that the vast majority of the immigrants she helps will spend some time in the Foreigners Internment Centres. "After all they have been through, they end up there... things should be organised differently," she says.