Desperation at Europe's back gate

Observations on immigration

Mario da Silva was among a group of several dozen sub-Saharan Africans who tried to cross the border into the Spanish enclave of Melilla

last month. A 25-year-old from Cacheu in Guinea-Bissau, he climbed two metal fences, scrambled over coils of barbed wire and jumped down on to the other side. Then a compatriot landed on top of him and knocked him out.

When da Silva awoke, he was in Melilla's main hospital. His head hurt but he was happy. After a two-year journey through Africa, he had made it to the European Union. "I'm learning Spanish and I'm going to get a job," he said a few days later, outside the Temporary Immigrant Centre in Melilla, where he had been given a bed while awaiting transfer to the mainland.

Others were not so lucky. At least eight Africans have been killed in increasingly desperate attempts to reach Melilla and Ceuta, Spain's other enclave in North Africa, over the past six weeks. On most nights since early summer they have sought to clamber over three-metre-high border fences in groups of several hundred at a time, using ladders made from pine branches held together with string or rags of clothing.

The overwhelmed Spanish Guardia Civil has responded violently. Joseph Abunaw, 17, from Douala in Cameroon, died at the border with Melilla after being hit in the chest with a rifle butt, according to two of his compatriots. And two of the men who died trying to get into Ceuta most recently had wounds from rubber bullets, officials in Madrid have admitted.

The Spanish authorities say they have been caught out by the changing nature of the illegal immigration in Melilla and Ceuta. In the past, the two enclaves attracted immigrants with enough money to buy false papers - North Africans, or even Indians and Pakistanis, with a few hundred dollars to their name. They slipped through frontier posts and then on to boats to the mainland. Today, the typical immigrant is like da Silva, whose story highlights the reasons for the recent violence witnessed at the enclaves' borders.

In 2003, he set out from Guinea-Bissau - where the average annual income is $160 and life expectancy 47 years - and headed for Spain - where average income is $23,300 and life expectancy 79 years. His journey by bus through Senegal, Mali and Algeria cost a total of E458, a fortune to him. In each country, he worked for several months as a builder to raise money for the next leg.

By the time da Silva reached Morocco, he was destitute. He walked the 95 miles from the Algerian border in ten days and begged for food while living rough in forests, waiting for a chance to get into Melilla. He had planned to buy a place on an inflatable dinghy but the Spanish government has tightened control of the seas, and it now costs E1,400 to get into Melilla by boat - far outside da Silva's means.

Without the money to buy false passports, pay criminal gangs or bribe border guards, his only way into Europe was over a barbed-wire fence - at the risk of his life. Nor could he afford to wait. By the end of the year, Spain will have raised the fences to more than six metres. At that height it will take a minute to climb over, four times longer than now. That will give the Guardia Civil, and the army troops sent to support them, an additional 45 seconds to take aim with rifle butts and rubber bullets.