Red Crescent Camp Inspection
Artist/Author: Ursula Biemann
One reason for this is that the success rate of boat passages to the Canary Islands has been dropping. When boats do not capsize, or run into other serious trouble, they are likely to get intercepted by the Spanish border patrol. This is not to say that migrants do not continue to try this route. During the week I spent in Nouadhibou, the local rescue team promised to call me any time of the day or night if a new boat full of migrants came ashore. While there were three arrivals, each containing about seventy stranded people, in the previous week and a large boat with two hundred people the following week, nothing happened during my stay. Clouds were hanging over the sea, making a nocturnal passage too perilous even for the adventurous. This is maybe just as well, as I would have been tempted to capture the sort of sensationalist frames of which I am critical.
The drive to reiterate images that have engrained themselves in our minds is strong; we see what we know. Instead, I filmed the Mauritanian Red-Crescent officials, notebooks in hand, carrying out their hygiene inspection of an empty detention center in a former school, where fifty detainees can be crammed into each of the bunk bed dormitories that used to be classrooms. The windows are bricked up, the walls inside covered with messages scribbled either by excited children or by desperate captives. The education crisis of the country, where the dropping wages of teachers reflects a general crumbling of the national economy, coincides with the migration boom. This inspection scene speaks of the impressive migration management machinery, put into motion along the Atlantic front of the Sahara since 2006, when the Strait of Gibraltar became virtually impassible and migrants began to search for exit routes further south.
Nouadhibou hosts about 50,000 transit migrants who maintain a low profile; at the slightest attempt to leave on a boat they become illegal and risk deportation. On my late night arrival at the sleepy airport, where local cab drivers pick up passengers on the airstrip, I got shoved around by a group of forceful Spanish special security officers who bulldozed their way through the travelers. Leaving the airport building and stepping out in the dark, I bumped into a large group of stout foreign men standing on the unlit airfield who turned out to be Russian fishermen waiting to be exchanged with a fresh crew after three weeks on the open sea. Within the first few minutes of my arrival, it became evident that large numbers of foreign people were pulsing through Nouadhibou, turning the dusty little place into an international platform for transit migration and the provision of resources for distant destinations.