Set free in Spain with a sandwich and a bottle of water

Photographer Charlie MaHoney offers a window on the lives of African migrants in Barcelona, Spain.

Charlie Mahoney
A Guinean man named Omar displays wire he recovered in the city. Scrap-metal collection requires no permit, and is a popular pursuit.

BARCELONA, SPAIN – The global recession hit hard in Spain, where an 18 percent unemployment rate is Europe’s highest.

But the recession is felt by more than just Spaniards. In cities like Barcelona, African migrants – legal and illegal – wander the streets selling DVDs and imitation designer handbags, or pushing carts while searching for recyclable scrap metal.

In 2006, nearly 32,000 people reached Spain’s Canary Islands, just 75 miles off the coast of Morocco – up from fewer than 5,000 the previous year, according to the local government. In 2007, the European Union intercepted and diverted 8,574 migrants near the African coast, and repatriations from the Canary Islands began.

Spain has approved the EU Return Directive, which will increase detention times up to six months, with the possibility of unlimited extensions.

Still, because of difficulties with identifications and preparing home-country readmission documentation within the 40-day detention period, a large percentage of migrants who reach the Canary Islands are not repatriated. Instead, they are flown to mainland Spain, released with a sandwich and a bottle of water, and left in a legal limbo.

Many live in abandoned buildings or overcrowded apartments, hoping for a government amnesty like the one granted in 2005.

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