Migrant death toll rises after clampdown on east European borders | World news

More than 22,500 migrants have reportedly died or disappeared globally since 2014 – more than half of them perishing while attempting to cross the Mediterranean, according to a study by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

A clampdown on Europe’s eastern borders has forced migrants to choose more dangerous routes as the death toll in the Mediterranean continues to rise despite a drop in the overall number of arrivals, data compiled by the UN refugee agency shows.

“While overall numbers of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean by the eastern route were reduced significantly in 2016 by the EU-Turkey deal, death rates have increased to 2.1 per 100 in 2017, relative to 1.2 in 2016,” reads the IOM report which is released on Monday. “Part of this rise is due to the greater proportion of migrants now taking the most dangerous route – that across the central Mediterranean – such that 1 in 49 migrants now died on this route in 2016.”

Since 2014, more deaths have been documented on this route than any other migration route in the world. In the first half of this year, the IOM said at least 3,110 migrants have died or disappeared globally, which is lower than the figure in 2016 (4,348), but the risk of dying has increased in the Mediterranean even though fewer migrants crossed into Europe.

“The central Mediterranean route, ending at Lampedusa or the main island of Sicily, accounts only for about a quarter of almost 1.5 million people who have arrived since 2014 on all routes, but for 88% of all migrant deaths in the Mediterranean,” it said.

Last month, Amnesty International criticised Italy for taking measures to keep migrants away from its shores, which it said leads “in their arbitrary detention in centres where they are at almost certain risk of torture, rape and even of being killed”. The IOM’s report also complained about smugglers in Libya and Italy increasingly using less seaworthy vessels.

Jean-Guy Vataux, head of mission in Libya for Médecins Sans Frontières, told the Guardian nearly all the people rescued from drowning in the Mediterranean have been “exposed to an alarming level of violence and exploitation: kidnap for ransom, forced labour, sexual violence and enforced prostitution, being kept in captivity or detained arbitrarily”.

According to Vataux, the majority of migrants in Libya live clandestinely “under the yoke of smugglers or – for the most unlucky – kidnapping organisations”.

He added: “Migrants going through Libya to reach Europe are facing impossible choices: getting on a boat is very risky, many die before they reach the European coast or a rescue ship. Remaining in Libya, whether in detention centres run by the administration or a criminal organisation, exposes them to unbelievable levels of violence and exploitation. There needs to be other options made available very quickly, like safe passage to other Mediterranean countries.”


Restrictions on the eastern route meant the number of arrivals in countries such as Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia had dramatically dropped. The three countries, which are not a part of the EU border-free Schengen zone, restricted migrants’ access in late 2015.

In the first half of this year, at least seven migrants have died of hypothermia during the winter months in the western Balkans. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has recently published a report warning of the dangers in the route. A mother and son who successfully crossed the Evros river – along the border between Turkey and Greece – both later died of hypothermia.

More than 120,000 people have arrived in Europe by sea so far this year – most departed from Libya bound for Italy, from Turkey bound for Greece or, more recently, from Morocco bound for Spain. About 82% of all migrants were travelling to Italy from Libya. In June, the Italian coastguard rescued about 5,000 people in one day in the Mediterranean.

The IOM report covers the period from January 2014 to the end of June and thus does not reflect the recent developments in Myanmar, where atrocities against the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority has led to an exodus of thousands to neighbouring Bangladesh.

The IOM report, titled Fatal Journeys, has been compiled by the Berlin-based Global Migration Data Analysis Centre (GMDAC). It is the only existing database on migrant deaths at the global level, collected through various means including official records, medical examiners and media reports.

Ann Singleton, senior research fellow at the University of Bristol’s school for policy studies, said: “For the families left behind it could make a real difference if they are able to find more information on their missing relatives. Better data on migrant fatalities can also help inform policies aimed at reducing migrant deaths.”

Global figures for the first half of 2017 show that northern Africa also had high fatalities and disappearances, with at least 225 recorded deaths. The majority of incidents occurred along routes from western Africa and the Horn of Africa towards Libya and Egypt. Sickness or violence are the main cause of death in those cases.

At least 150 deaths were also recorded in the US-Mexico border crossings since January. “Along the border, irregular migrants avoid coming into contact with authorities in well-patrolled areas and are often forced to cross natural hazards such as the desert of Arizona or the fast-running Rio Grande river,” IOM said. More people have died attempting to cross the border compared with last year despite an ease in border apprehensions of migrants.

Recent clampdowns on the Libya-Italy route have also led to the increase in attempts to reach the continent via Morocco. The IOM has said the number of people arriving in Spain by sea this year is likely to outnumber the number arriving in Greece.

Francesca Friz-Prguda, UNHCR representative in Spain, who recently visited the port cities of Tarifa and Algeciras, where refugees are arriving almost daily after crossing the strait of Gibraltar from Morocco, said Spain was underprepared and lacked an integrated national strategy. More than 14,000 migrants have arrived by sea – a 90% increase compared with last year. Arrivals in Andalusian ports have tripled.

“While this is really not an emergency situation if you compare it to Italy, there are no adequate structures and procedures in place to deal even with the current level, let alone with more arrivals,” she said.

“It’s a myth to assume that people arriving here are all economic migrants, sub-Saharan Africa is one of the most refugee-producing regions in the world, so even statistically there’s a likelihood that these mixed flows are refugees travelling,” she said. “A lot of media have not dealt with the issue in a very responsible way, talking about avalanches and storms, flood, and God knows what – there’s a clearly a perception which doesn’t seem to sufficiently understand that first there are many refugee-producing countries in sub-Saharan Africa.”

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‘We would rather die than stay there’: the refugees crossing from Morocco to Spain | World news

On the hilltops of Tarifa, the Spanish city that faces Morocco across the Strait of Gibraltar and mainland Europe’s southernmost point, gusts of wind power the turbines dotting the landscape.

For the surfers who pack the city’s hotels, the wind is a welcome sign of challenging waves. But for the Spanish coastguard and NGOs, the gusts are a warning that the record numbers of migrants and refugees attempting to cross the 10-mile strait are in grave danger.

The number of refugees and migrants risking the sea journey between Morocco and Spain has been rising sharply, and last week was an exceptionally busy one for rescuers.

On Wednesday, Salvamento Marítimom, Spain’s maritime safety and rescue agency, together with the Spanish Red Cross rescued nearly 600 people from at least 15 different vessels off the coast of Tarifa – the largest figure for a single day since August 2014, when about 1,300 people landed on the Spanish coast in a 24-hour period.

Migrants arrive on board a Spanish maritime rescue boat at the port of Tarifa

Migrants arrive on board a Spanish maritime rescue boat at the port of Tarifa. Photograph: Marcos Moreno/AP

Most attempt the crossing using paddle boats, but others use jetskis, inflatable vessels and rickety fishing boats. According to Frontex, the EU’s border agency, more migrants are dying at sea this year than in 2016. And most who continue to cross know the risks they are taking.

“We prefer to die than to stay there. Death happens once but we prefer to risk our life than stay there,” said Abdou, 29, of the ethnic Amazigh community in the impoverished northern Rif region of Morocco, where hundreds of people have been arrested after recent protests against the state. He was rescued last week along with seven others from an inflatable Zodiac boat they had bought for €4,000 – a cheaper option that avoids the need to pay people-smugglers for passage.

Zakaria, 30, said he was saved by a helicopter last week after coastguards spotted him and others attempting to cross the choppy waters in another Zodiac boat. “I was afraid. If the helicopter didn’t come we would have died,” he said.

Recent clampdowns on routes to Europe via Libya have led to the increase in attempts to reach the continent via Morocco. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has said the number of people arriving in Spain by sea this year is likely to outnumber the number arriving in Greece.

According to IOM, 11,849 irregular migrants and refugees reached Spain by sea between 1 January and mid-August. A further 3,500 have made it to two Spanish enclaves in north Africa, Ceuta and Melilla, the only EU land borders with Africa.

Though Spain’s numbers are dwarfed by those of Italy, which has seen 97,376 arrivals so far this year, there is significant pressure on Spanish authorities to make sure it can protect, register and accommodate those arriving on its shores.

Concerns are also growing over the potential for militants to exploit migrant routes into Europe in the wake of terror attacks in Nice, Brussels and most recently Barcelona – all claimed by Islamic State.

Rosa Otero, of the UN’s refugee agency in Spain, said the country was not yet in an emergency situation, particularly when compared with Italy, but authorities were struggling to cope.

“Given the current rise … there are no adequate structures and procedures in place to deal with more arrivals and to swiftly identify international protection and other protection needs,” she said, adding that the shortcomings left migrants – especially children – vulnerable to traffickers.

Every day, between three to four dark green buses marked Guardia Civil arrive in Tarifa to transfer new arrivals to the nearby city of Algeciras, where the Centro de Internamiento de Extranjeros (the alien internment centre) is located. Most arrivals are originally from the west African countries of Nigeria, Guinea and Ivory Coast.

The Red Cross, one of many NGOs active in Algeciras, provides asylum seekers with food three times a day and a place to sleep. On Saturday the centre’s rooms were packed with children using computers. Women washed clothes outside.

Abdou was one of the men being housed at the Red Cross facility. He said the thought of the trip across the Strait of Gibraltar had frightened him, but he had been determined to make it.

“What is important is that I’ve left Morocco, nothing else is important. We had a lot of fear, because the sea was sometimes peaceful, sometimes not,” he said. “There’s war. The state of Morocco has conflict with [the Amazigh] people. It’s not like Syria but they put us in jail for political reason. There’s no right[s], no economy, nothing.”

Two brothers, 28 and 19, and their two cousins, both 21, were among those rescued on Wednesday. Like Abdou, they too belong to the Amazigh community.

Last month their city, al-Hoceima on the northern edge of the Rif mountains, was the scene of a million-man march. Moroccan security guards used batons and teargas to quell protesters. Human Rights Watch said at least 185 people had been arrested in connection with the protests and at least 46 of them had been sentenced to 18 months in jail after forced confessions.

The hand of a Moroccan Amazigh refugee, scarred after being beaten by Moroccan police

The arm of a Moroccan Amazigh refugee, scarred after being beaten by Moroccan police. Photograph: Saeed Kamali Dehghan for the Guardian

The four men made the six-hour, 105-mile journey from Plaga Soaan in el-Hoceima to Motril, on Spain’s south coast, on one jetski. They were kept in custody for two days upon their arrival before being taken to the Red Cross in Algeciras.

Those seeking asylum in Spain can wait anything from six months to two years to receive a decision, and a growing backlog means the processing time is getting longer. Local police say local temporary detention centres are so overwhelmed by the number of asylum seekers that they are relying on NGOs to help find accommodation.

Albert Bitoden Yaka, a centre coordinator at Fundación Cepaim in Algeciras, which shelters refugees and migrants in eight different houses in the city, agreed there was a lack of resources to deal with the new arrivals.

“In my opinion, I think the authorities and European states are proving to be inefficient when it comes to addressing this phenomenon, especially the arrival of refugees,” he said.

The Guardian visited one Fundación Cepaim house on Saturday, where seven refugees were sheltered in four rooms in a flat in a large residential block. Residents receive monthly payments of €50 to spend as they wish and €170 for food, until Spanish authorities reach a decision on their asylum application.

“Algeciras is a city of more than 120 nationalities, they know how important it is to live together. It is in moments of like this [after the Barcelona attack] that we realise the impact of having experience in diversity to prevent hostility,” Yaka said.

Larri, a 22-year-old English-speaking refugee from Ghana, lives in a Cepaim house. He said he first tried to reach Europe via the Libya-Italy route, but nearly died when the boat carrying 35 people capsized an hour after their departure.


Larri: ‘Here, it’s 100% better than Ghana.’ Photograph: Saeed Kamali Dehghan for the Guardian

“Only 12 people survived, the rest all died before our eyes, among them children and women,” he remembered. “I swam and caught the boat, until the next day fishermen came and saw us. They went back and brought help. We were crying, they went back, people came with a boat. I was in sea for one day until 11am.”

Undeterred, Larri travelled to Morocco in an attempt to reach Spain across the strait. He said he belonged to Ghana’s Bimoba ethnic group, which is fighting a long-running conflict with the rival Konkomba group. He had left Ghana for Libya as soon as he finished junior high school, in search of a better life.

“I didn’t know Libya was also fighting,” he said. He worked in Libya for three years before going to Morocco, where he paid 1,000 dinars (£82) to get on a dinghy with women and children.

“In this weather, a lot of people die,” he said. “It’s up to God, some people don’t reach, some people reach. The moment you’re in the boat, you’re selling your life, but there’s no solution. [The] only solution [is to] pray God to save you, [to] reach the place, but it’s not easy to enter this sea.”

Asked whether it was worth taking the risk, he said: “Here, it’s 100% better than Ghana. I was suffering, sometime beaten up on my way from Niger to Libya. When I see everything now that I’m in Europe, it was 100% worth taking the risk.”

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Spain lacks capacity to handle migration surge, says UN refugee agency | World news

Spain lacks the resources and capacity to protect the rising number of refugees and migrants reaching it by sea, the UN refugee agency has said.

The warning from UNHCR comes as the Spanish coastguard said it rescued 593 people in a day from 15 small paddle boats, including 35 children and a baby, after they attempted to cross the seven-mile Strait of Gibraltar.

The number of refugees and migrants risking the sea journey between Morocco and Spain has been rising sharply, with the one-day figure the largest since August 2014, when about 1,300 people landed on the Spanish coast in a 24-hour period.

About 9,300 migrants have arrived in Spain by sea so far this year, while a further 3,500 have made it to two Spanish enclaves in north Africa, Ceuta and Melilla, the EU’s only land borders with Africa.

Chart of child refugees and migrants arriving in Europe after crossing Mediterranean

María Jesús Vega, a spokeswoman for UNHCR Spain, said police were badly under-resourced and there was a lack of interpreters and a shortage of accommodation for the new arrivals.

“The state isn’t prepared and there aren’t even the resources and the means to deal with the usual flow of people arriving by sea,” she said.

“Given the current rise, we’re seeing an overflow situation when it comes to local authorities trying to cope at arrival points.”

Vega said the agency was seeing a very high number of vulnerable people including women, victims of people-trafficking, and children.

“What we’re asking is for there to be the right mechanisms in place to ensure people are treated with dignity when they come,” she said.

Last week, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said Spain could become more popular than Greece as a destination for people seeking to enter Europe, as some look for alternatives to Italy.

About 12,440 people have arrived in Greece so far in 2017, according to UNHCR. The numbers heading to Spain and Greece are dwarfed by Italy, which has seen 97,376 arrivals so far this year. Although this is a reduction on the 101,512 people who arrived during the same period in 2016, the issue continues to cause problems for the authorities, with almost 5,000 people reaching Italy on one day in June.

William Spindler, a spokesman for UNHCR in Geneva, said: “There have been three main routes into Europe for many years, for decades: the central Mediterranean one, the eastern one from Turkey to Greece, and there has always been Spain.

“What is true is that when efforts are made to clamp down on one route, another tends to open up.”

UNHCR figures show that most of those arriving in Spain by sea set out from Morocco, although some also embark from Algeria. The majority of the migrants are from Cameroon, Guinea and the Gambia.

Vega said the continuing instability in Libya meant people trying to escape the war in Syria were trying to reach Europe via Ceuta and Melilla.

She said the agency had noticed an increase in the number of Moroccans travelling to Spain, coinciding with the end of Ramadan and unrest in the Rif region.

Although Vega stressed that the situation in Spain was hardly comparable with Italy, she said Madrid needed to do much more.

“This could be managed quite simply if it were properly addressed,” she said.

“[But] if there isn’t a proper response, we could see people who have fallen into the clutches of people-traffickers becoming merchandise. We’re going to see people who should have international protection facing danger if they’re returned home.”

Statistics compiled by the IOM show that more than 113,000 migrants and refugees have entered Europe by sea this year. To date, more than 2,300 have died in the attempt, 119 of them while trying to reach Spain.

Migrant and refugee arrivals in Europe chart

Italy has embarked on a flurry of initiatives to reduce numbers, including a diplomatic campaign to persuade tribes in the south of Libya to clamp down on people smugglers.

Marco Minniti, the Italian interior minister, has insisted that NGOs involved in sea rescues sign a code of conduct, which was sharply criticised by the UN-backed IOM.

Several aid groups refused to sign the code of conduct because they thought their neutrality would be compromised by taking armed police officers on board. At least three organisations signed it.

The Italian government remains under pressure, as neighbouring countries have tightened border controls, meaning refugees and migrants are unable to head north to France or Austria as they have done in the past.

On Wednesday, 70 Austrian troops were deployed to the Brenner pass to help police with border checks, the Italian news agency ANSA reported.

UNHCR said it was too soon to tell whether the recent drop in arrivals in Italy represented a downward trend or a temporary fluctuation.

Under pressure from the EU, the Libyan coastguard has stepped up interceptions of boats, while some NGOs have suspended work in the central Mediterranean because they felt threatened by Libya’s coastguard.

Both could explain the recent fall in sea crossings, but Spindler said: “We don’t have any hard evidence. We could see an increase in the next few weeks.”

Vega said the international community needed to do more to tackle the root causes of migration, such as conflict, climate change and economic instability, to reduce numbers.

“It’s clear that walls and fences aren’t going to deter anyone who’s desperate enough to risk their life and those of their children. Whatever lies ahead of them, it can’t be worse than what they’re leaving behind. They know they could die,” she said.

The Spanish government did not respond to a request for comment.

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Trouble in paradise: the Canary Island beach accused of illegally importing sand | World news

When David Silva picked up a spade on a beach in the Canary Islands last summer and started shovelling sand from a wooden box, it seemed innocuous enough.

The Manchester City and Spain football star is a local boy, and had given his valuable blessing to a beach project on Gran Canaria that promised to create new jobs with a tourism magnet complete with 500-berth marina and golf course.

“The truth is that this is a fantastic development that people will relish returning to,” said Silva in his capacity as an “ambassador” for Anfi Group, the developer and tour operator that is marketing Tauro as “a five-star paradise”.

What Silva didn’t know then was that the project to cover the rocky island beach with 70,000 tonnes of golden sand would spiral into a geopolitical row, amid allegations that the shipment was imported in defiance of international law from Africa’s last colony, the occupied territory of Western Sahara.


David Silva at Tauro beach, Gran Canaria Photograph: YouTube

Spanish authorities have launched an investigation. Anfi insists it has done nothing wrong. Human rights experts say that if the sand was sourced from the occupied state across the water from Gran Canaria, then it would be in breach of both UN security council resolutions and rulings by the international court of justice.

“The ICJ rulings were quite clear: you cannot exploit natural resources in occupied territories unless the proceeds go to the benefit of the local people,” said Prof Stephen Zunes, an expert on the Western Sahara situation.

Trade with Western Sahara has been hugely controversial as it has been occupied by Morocco for more than 40 years. In December, Europe’s highest court declared that trade of agricultural and fishery products originating from Western Sahara was illegal.

Anfi’s vision for a “new Eden” in the Tauro valley in southern Gran Canaria began two decades ago, marking the beginning of the end for the natural pebbled shoreline and oceanfront.

But though apparently abundant, sand is in fact a commodity in short supply, hugely in demand for use in construction, glass-making, electronics – and even land reclamation in Asia.

Anfi was unable to source sand for its 300-metre beach from Gran Canaria and had to look further afield. Asked repeatedly by the Guardian if it had sourced the product from Western Sahara, a spokesperson Rubén Reja referred ambiguously to “Saharan sand”, implying that it could have come from Morocco, and insisting this was “normal practice” for the Canary Islands.

“We could not buy any here in Canary Islands,” Reja said. “The sand has been brought from the Sahara by a local company which specialises in this business,” he said, adding that the company had “all the permissions and have complied with all legal requirements”.

The Spanish Civil Guard’s environmental protection service, Seprona, disagrees. Its chief in Las Palmas, Lt Germán García, told the Guardian that it had intercepted a Dutch vessel run by shipping company Eemswerken delivering the sand from Western Sahara.

“The sand was brought illegally, it was discharged with no control at all,” García alleged.

Eemswerken did not respond to repeated requests to comment on this article. Its own website announced in May last year that a vessel would carry “100,000 tons of Sahara sand from Morocco, El-Aaiún to Las Palmas”. El-Aaiún is the capital of Morocco-occupied Western Sahara.

Though the timing coincides, it has not been possible to definitively trace the sand from origin via the Eemswerken ship to the end-user. Morocco has strict control over occupied Western Sahara, making it impossible for journalists to investigate the precise source of sand exported from El-Aaiún.

When a journalist researching this piece visited occupied Western Sahara in April, his movements were closely watched by police and hindered by frequent checkpoints. Taking sand samples from the port was strictly forbidden.

However, a sample was smuggled out. Prof Valentin R Troll of Sweden’s Uppsala University, a specialist on the geology of the Canary Islands, confirmed that the sand at Tauro was mineralogically “very similar” to the sample from Western Sahara, as is sand from other artificial Canary beaches. This is not conclusive proof however, as sand from Morocco would also be of similar mineral structure.

Local sources say the sand is simply scooped up off the beaches, while others say it is acquired from river beds outside El-Aaiún.

Sand dunes in Sahara desert, Western Sahara.

Sand dunes in Sahara desert, Western Sahara. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

The sand trade with Western Sahara is bigger than Tauro beach – there is also evidence of sand from the territory being supplied to the construction industry in the Canaries.

“In the absence of an embargo, the companies feel they can do whatever they want,” said Erik Hagen of Western Sahara Resource Watch, which tracks trade from the occupied territory. “The principles of international law apply, but there are no legal consequences for the companies involved.”

A string of Spanish regions and municipalities, including the capital of Gran Canaria, Las Palmas, have in recent weeks adopted statements demanding that trade in natural resources from Western Sahara should cease – an initiative led by the Spanish Greens/European Free Alliance group in the European parliament.

“Trade is not neutral, so if you decide to trade with Morocco with Western Saharan products without Sahrawi consent, this trade is going to be supporting the colonisation and occupation of Western Sahara,” said Florent Marcellesi, an MEP for the Greens/EFA.

The Polisario Front, a Sahrawi liberation movement, brought a case against the trade of agricultural and fishery products to the EU court of justice in 2015, which in a landmark ruling last December upheld the complaint.

“It is really clear from the case that Morocco is not Western Sahara, and if you want to extend international [trade] agreements to Western Sahara you have to obtain the consent of Polisario,” said Gilles Devers, Polisario’s legal counsel in Brussels. Polisario told the Guardian no such consent had been granted in this case.

Morocco exports around $3m (£2.3m) a year of sand. About 70% ends up in Spain, according to MIT’s Observatory of Economic Complexity. Sand is one of the world’s most used natural resources – the OEC estimated the global trade of sand in 2015 to be worth $1.72bn.

Sand from occupied Western Sahara has been used on several Spanish beaches in the past. Some 270,000 tons of Western Saharan sand were brought in for the construction of Las Teresitas beach on Tenerife in the 1970s, at a time when the territory was still a Spanish colony. Sand on the beach was replenished in 1998 during the Moroccan occupation which by then was already more than 20 years old.

In November 1975, some 20,000 Moroccan soldiers and some 350,000 civilians marched into Western Sahara, driving tens of thousands of Sahrawis over the border into Algeria, where they remain in refugee camps to this day.

Many Sahrawi children living in the refugee camps in the desert outside Tindouf have never seen a beach, unless by fortune they have been whisked away to one as part of the Vacaciones en Paz (Vacations in Peace) programme, where Spanish families take Sahrawi children into their homes so they can escape the the extremely hot summer months in the camps. The irony is that for some of these children, the first time they step foot on a beach it will have been built with the sand of their homeland.


Sahrawi refugee children in a camp outside Tindouf Photograph: Rowan Bauer

“It is outrageous that we are living on humanitarian aid while we would have one of the richest countries in north Africa,” said Mohamed Salem, an English teacher in a refugee camp outside Tindouf, Algeria.

For now, Tauro beach remains closed to the public due to Seprona’s investigation. The future of the beach remains uncertain.

Asked whether Anfi had an official position on Western Sahara, Rubén Reja, the company’s communication director, said: “Anfi only knows about holidays.”

Anders Lundqvist and Rowan Bauer are freelance journalists whose reporting was funded by Emmaus Björkå, a Sweden-based human rights organisation

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Juan Goytisolo obituary | Books

Scourge of racism, sexism and Spanish obscurantism, and defender of Muslim culture, Juan Goytisolo, who has died aged 86, was one of Europe’s most erudite and brilliant novelists.

His impressive, varied body of work – he published 19 novels, two books of stories, five travel books and several essay collections – succeeded in combining beautiful language with emotional honesty and political polemic. He was considered one of Spain’s finest writers, though he fled the country in 1956, stifled by family and the Franco dictatorship, and never returned.

His most popular books are two volumes of autobiography, Coto Vedado (1985, Forbidden Territory) and En los Reinos de Taifa (1986, Realms of Strife). These compelling portraits of his wild childhood and youth in Barcelona are unique in Spanish letters for their personal honesty.

The early novels and stories are in the social realist tradition, coupled with political commitment. As the dictatorship’s press reported nothing true, Goytisolo and his literary generation felt the need to write fiction that expressed Spain’s real degradation and poverty. He supported the Communist party’s underground struggle in Spain, the Algerian war of liberation and the Cuban revolution.

Born and brought up in Barcelona, Juan had a sister, Marta, and two brothers, the poet José Agustín and the novelist Luis, a bourgeois family that became spectacularly dysfunctional after his mother, Júlia Gay, was killed by an Italian bomb in the Spanish civil war. His father, José María, a chemical company executive, was a supporter of the Franco dictatorship.

Goytisolo studied law before his first novel, Juegos de Manos (The Young Assassins), was published in 1954. From 1953 onwards he had made trips to Paris and in 1956 became a reader there for the publisher Gallimard, channelling into translation many Spanish anti-Franco writers and South American novelists. There he met Monique Lange, who was to become his wife, and Jean Genet, who became a key influence on Goytisolo’s development. “Are you queer?” asked Genet, not a man for small talk. “I’ve had some experiences,” mumbled Goytisolo. “Experiences? You talk like an English pederast,” replied Genet.

In the mid-1960s Goytisolo acknowledged to Monique, and publicly, his homosexuality. This difficult, Genet-inspired step forward to greater honesty and freedom applied to his literature, too, which took a sharp turn in 1966 with the publication of Señas de Identidad (Marks of Identity). It was banned in Spain, as was all his subsequent writing until after Franco’s death in 1975. Despite his confession, Monique and Goytisolo married in 1978, and maintained an open relationship until her death in 1996.

With Marks of Identity, both style and content changed. Goytisolo rejected social realism and conventional, tensed language for what he called “narrative free verse”, using stream of consciousness, including street signs, police reports and tourism brochures, and abandoning standard punctuation. It was the first of three linked books that studied how the Franco dictatorship was based on several centuries of a Spanish culture that compulsively rejected its Gypsies, Moors and Jews.

In Reivindicación del Conde Don Julián (1970, Count Julian), an exiled Spaniard rages from Tangier against Spanish nationalism and Catholicism. It was followed by the highly experimental Juan Sin Tierra (1975, Juan the Landless). The ferocious opening words of Count Julian catch the spirit and tone of these three novels: “Harsh homeland, the falsest, most miserable imaginable, I shall never return to you.”

While Goytisolo never again lived in Spain, he often visited and was profoundly involved in Spanish literature, emphasising an alternative, subversive tradition, running from the picaresque novelists to Joseph Blanco White, an exile from Andalucía in 19th-century Britain, paladin of South America’s independence and subject of two Goytisolo books. To ignore the Arab influence on Cervantes or the Jewish origins of most 16th- and 17th-century writers, Goytisolo argued, was “like teaching 20th-century Russian literature as a golden age, without mentioning the gulag”.

He found little comfort in the consumerist democracy that replaced the Franco regime. He followed Genet in his solidarity with the oppressed, rejection of sexual repression and commitment to literary freedom. Paisajes Después de la Batalla (1982, Landscapes After the Battle) is a dreamlike satire on immigration to Paris. Among his non-sequential and parodic later novels, Las Semanas del Jardín (1997, The Garden of Secrets) renders homage to oral storytelling and Carajicomedia (2000, A Cock-eyed Comedy) obscenely and hilariously satirises the Spanish church.

In the 90s he again became very active politically. Numerous articles denounced Chechnya’s suffering under the Russian army and the destruction of multicultural Bosnia in the Balkans war. With Susan Sontag he visited Sarajevo and called for its defence.

After Monique died, he moved to Marrakech, in Morocco. There he lived with an ex-lover, Abdelhadi, and his extended family in a house just off the Jemaa el-Fna Square. He learned the demotic Arabic of the city, stood alongside its poor against the Europeanised bourgeoisie and campaigned successfully for the square to be declared a Unesco masterpiece of oral heritage.

Prizes came late: he was unbeloved by the establishment he flayed. In 2008 he was awarded Spain’s national prize for literature and in 2014 the Miguel de Cervantes prize (often called the Spanish-language Nobel).

In person, this serious man was friendly and talkative, enjoying long chats, gossip and jokes. As the subversive iconoclast did not wish to rest in Spain or in a Christian cemetery, Goytisolo was buried in the civil cemetery of Larache, Morocco, near his adored Genet.

Juan Goytisolo Gay, novelist, born 5 January 1931; died 4 June 2017

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