surinenglish

Three days in a sports hall - what now?

The migrants in the sports hall before their departure on Wednesday.
The migrants in the sports hall before their departure on Wednesday. / Salvador Salas
  • The hundreds of migrants who arrived in Malaga at the weekend are now able to move on, with the help of Cruz Roja

  • Jan is desperate to find his two-year-old niece, and Mohamed wants to join the army. Just two of the stories of those who have risked their lives to get here

Jan is 21 and has barely put his mobile phone down since last Saturday. He searches among the videos and games. "Look," he says, to illustrate the story he is about to tell. In the images he looks hot and exhausted as he walks on the Gurugu mountain in Morocco, which is used as a temporary refuge for thousands of migrants who, like Jan, are hoping to reach the promised land.

You can hardly understand what he is saying in the video, although you can guess, because you can see that he is carrying his two-year-old niece on his shoulders. The little girl rests heavily upon her uncle. Now, though, he doesn't know where she is, and that is why he has been glued to his mobile since arriving at Malaga port last Saturday with dozens others.

The Cruz Roja (Spanish Red Cross) staff who have been looking after the migrants at the Tiro de Pichón sports centre in Malaga try to reassure him: the little girl was taken straight to a foster family and "it seems she's OK", they tell him, but Jan has to move on today. He has spent 72 hours under police custody at the sports centre and now, as a free man, has to decide what to do while still not knowing what will happen to his niece. He is still tormented by the memory of her inconsolable sobbing during the hours of hell on the boat.

"I want to go to France; her father is waiting for us there," says Jan. He is also distressed for another reason: his sister - the little girl's mother - and the baby of the family, just ten months old, are still in Morocco, on that inhospitable mountain waiting to be able to get on a boat.

The four left their native Conakry in Guinea, six months ago and the horrors Jan tells of the journey are exacerbated by the tragedy which has now befallen this family which has been divided into two.

"This is so hard, it's really, really awful," sobs the young man, collapsed on a chair as the compatriots with whom he has shared space for the past few days begin to collect up their scarce belongings. They help the 20 or so Cruz Roja staff who have been caring for them to dismantle the beds, put away the blankets and store the enormous boxes of food and water in the sports centre. The heat is unbearable, but this is a way for them to show their appreciation of the assistance given to them, and it makes them feel useful. That is important.

Some, like Jan, are from Guinea, but others are from Mali, Ivory Coast, Eritrea and Ghana and they are all part of the group of over 200 migrants rescued on Saturday and brought into Malaga Port while not far away local residents were paddling in the sea as they celebrated the Night of San Juan on the beaches.

From there, the adult males (the majority) were taken to the sports centre, where they were kept under watch by the National Police. Meanwhile the women and children were taken to alternative accommodation and shelters.

Cruz Roja workers initially provided medical and humanitarian assistance in the port, then looked after the migrants at the sports centre and then, as the time for them to leave approached, began to carry out other tasks: helping to make the complicated travel arrangements to other cities in Spain, and dismantling the temporary facilities at Tiro de Pichón.

They worked extremely hard to help the migrants reach the places they wanted to go, and find family networks elsewhere in the country.

The diaspora began on Wednesday morning: at midday, about 100 people got on the first coaches, clutching their tickets and a bag of food; another 50 or so followed in the afternoon and about 80 remained under the protection of the Spanish Commission for Refugee Assistance (CEAR) in Malaga because they have applied for asylum.

"You're OK, you've got the white wristband and you'll get to Bilbao with no problem," says one of the workers to a boy who isn't sure which queue to join. He and others with the white wristbands will travel the inland route (Madrid, Zaragoza, San Sebastián and Bilbao). Others with a pink wristband are following the Mediterranean route, stopping in Almeria, Murcia, Valencia and Barcelona.

Mohamed, 25, was heading for Barcelona. He was alone and had no idea what he would find there but was sure it couldn't be any worse than what lay behind him, because this young man with a degree in Industry has been trying to get away for five years.

"I spent more than a year in Morocco waiting to do the crossing," he admits. Then he spent nine hours in a small boat, something he prefers not to talk about. And now, there is uncertainty.

"I'd like to stay in Spain, learn Spanish and join the army," he says. He shook his head firmly when asked if he was afraid he might end up fighting in a war. "No, no," he insists. Then he produces a piece of white paper. "Would you mind writing your phone number on here? Only I don't know anyone in Spain. In case something goes wrong..." he says.

Mobiles and boats

Smartphones have become a type of umbilical cord for these migrants, a way of keeping in touch with those left behind and those who await them all over Europe. It may be someone they know, or sometimes a relative. On Tuesday many of them were overjoyed when Cruz Roja gave them a wifi password so they could contact their families.

"Some people think a phone is a luxury and complain about them having one, as if they didn't have mothers who were anxiously awaiting news that they hadn't died crossing the Strait," says Rosa, one of the Cruz Roja staff. It is a politically incorrect attitude, but is not uncommon when people are sitting on their comfortable sofas watching the images of the migrants on TV. Rosa also answers the question about how the phones survive the boat journey. "They wrap them in condoms so they don't get wet. One on the top and another on the bottom," explains Rosa, gesturing with her hands to demonstrate.

It may sound strange, but the condoms are provided by the nuns in a convent in Nador, who help in any way they can and, thanks to this detail, are able to predict when an avalanche of small boats will be trying to cross the Strait. "When a large number of people request condoms to protect their mobiles, we know they are ready to go at any time," they say. They are rarely wrong. And on this side of the Strait, Rosa makes her own prediction: "This is going to be a very busy summer in Malaga," she says.