IS IT already a year ago that we last braced ourselves for the annual invasion of the Algarve, that most beautiful part of the world we have chosen to call home? The queues, the noise and the daily stampede to the beach, led by pasty-looking overweight northern Europeans leaving the more sedate Portuguese hordes in their wake? In short, yes it is, but that is only indirectly my subject this week.
I had a grotesque vision the other day; a nightmarish scenario straight out of one of those grainy, black and white incomprehensible Scandinavian movies that go some way towards explaining why the Nordic countries have one of the highest suicide rates amongst 20 and 30-year-olds in the world. Close your eyes and imagine you are lying on a breathtakingly beautiful beach, nicely toned limbs from the gym, well oiled with the most effective suntan lotion money can buy, extended outwards at an angle designed to optimise the bronzing ritual. You are in your fashionable swim wear, bedded down on an outrageously oversized five-star hotel beach ‘quilt’, cool box stuffed to the brim with refreshing beverages, MP-3 player, i-pod and mobile phone all within easy reach.
There is a pleasant breeze caressing your inert, basking shape, while the distant squeals of happy children playing in the surf penetrate your subconscious. You reached your place in paradise alongside hundreds of others in a comfortable jet, a taxi making the last leg of your journey as stress-free as possible. Later, a candle-lit dinner, perhaps accompanied by a magnum of perfectly chilled Champagne, awaits at a palm-fringed, exclusive restaurant, where your every need will be catered for.
Suddenly, the waterfront is silent, the momentary vacuum almost immediately filled by a crescendo of panicked screams. You open your eyes in fearful anticipation of being confronted by a triangular fin, circling hungrily in the breakwater, or a huge wave blotting out the horizon. Neither is the case.
Instead, two ramshackle fishing boats, looking anything but seaworthy, are discharging 186 scantly clad African migrants, balancing their pitifully few belongings in a bundle on their heads, as they wade ashore through the shallow waves. Twenty-first century travellers of a different kind have reached your holiday resort, much to everyone’s horror.
This scene has not yet actually been played out in southern Portugal, but it did take place in Tenerife and Gran Canaria last May. These ‘tourists’ have paid up to 1,300 euros to make their desperate journey, no last-minute booking discount, no easyjet, no return ticket. They do not receive a rose and a free map of the region upon arrival, the reception committee wear guns and badges, there is not a smile in sight, and their holiday camp for the next few weeks will be a crowded refugee holding centre. Once safely behind barbed wire, the host country grudgingly treats its unwelcome visitors to food, water and a medical check, before attempting repatriation. Nearly 7,000 of these pilgrims seeking a more prosperous new existence, if not a chance at life per se, have arrived in the Canary Islands already this year and a further 500,000 have gathered on the Mauritanian coast to try to reach Europe. They are not waiting for the Lisbon-Dakar rally. They are (still) the lucky ones.
Many of these illegal voyages of hope turn into disaster, the would-be migrants falling victim to ruthless traffickers. Barbadian authorities recently turned up a vessel bearing no name or flag, drifting like a ghost ship in the Caribbean, four months after it had set sail. Aboard, coastguards found the bodies of 11 young men, cut adrift in the Atlantic without food or fuel, abandoned to slowly starve to death. Most of their identities will never be known. It has subsequently emerged that the desperate group had handed over their life’s savings to a mysterious Spaniard, 2,800 miles away from the point of discovery, in West Africa. The boat developed engine trouble and was cast adrift by the greedy and callous ‘entrepreneur’ – Interpol is now investigating, with little hope of bringing the mass-murderer to justice.
This is not pleasant reading. I am sorry if I disturbed you, but sometimes a reality check is necessary, even if only to prevent you going into shock should that reality catch up with you one sunny afternoon on the beach. The likelihood of this occurring is not as outlandish in 2006 as it may have seemed even 10 years ago. And, I feel that this story also serves to put the little discomforts we may experience during the onset of the holiday season, into perspective. We are all real people with real problems, but there are other equally real people with problems of an entirely different magnitude: I am not saying that this fact should lessen our worries, only that we should feel more comfortable shouldering them, in view of the abject misery just across the sea.