'He was just a kid': the boy who became a symbol of Spain's migration crisis
Spain âHe was just a kidâ: the boy who became a symbol of Spain's migration crisis
Four-year-old Samuel Kabamba died a year ago trying to reach Europe with his mother
Among the immaculately tended, flower-bedecked graves of Barbate cemetery, one tomb stands out. Its occupant was not from the Andalusian town â" he was not even Spanish â" and his gravestone is decorated not with an image of Christ or the Virgin Mary but a picture of waves breaking on a san dy beach and a photograph of a little boy wrapped up in a scarf and coat.
âGod has given and God has taken away,â reads the epitaph in French. âBlessed be God.â
Here, surrounded by the dead of a country he never knew, lies Samuel Kabamba, a four-year-old from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who died trying to reach Europe with his mother, VÃ©ronique Nzazi.
A year ago this Saturday, his body washed up on a beach near Cape Trafalgar, a few miles from Barbate. Its discovery briefly sent Spainâs collective conscience into spasms and elicited inevitable comparisons with Alan Kurdi, the two-year-old Syrian refugee whose death forced the world to consider the human cost of the migration crisis.
Statistics from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) showed that 21,468 migrants and refugees arrived in Spain by sea in 2017, with 223 people â" including Samuel and his mother â" dying as they made the journey. The number of arrivals had more than tripled on the previous year, when 6,046 people reached Spain and 128 people died en route.
Figures for the first three weeks of 2018 suggest that Spain is set for what the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, calls âanother very challenging yearâ. By 22 January, 848 people had arrived in the country by sea and 22 had died in the attempt.
Father Gabriel Delgado, a CÃ¡diz priest who has worked with migrants and refugees for 25 years, learned of Samuelâs death through a contact in the Guardia Civil shortly after the body was found.
For two days he waited for word of the tragedy to spread â" and for the attendant outrage. When neither was forthcoming, he tweeted: âThe death of Alan, the little Syrian boy, moved the world. On Friday, the body of a young immigrant boy washed up on the coast of CÃ¡diz and no oneâs saying anything.â
Samuel and his mother had left their family in Kinshasa in March 2016 to seek treatment for a tumour on her neck and for a lung condition the boy had.
After travelling to Algeria and spending eight months in Morocco, they climbed into a small inflatable boat on 12 January 2017, hoping to reach Europe. The boat never made it. A fortnight after Samuelâs body was discovered, Nzaziâs was found on a beach in Algeria.
As news of their deaths emerged, a local NGO tore into the EU for shutting Europe up âlike a fortressâ, keeping out those fleeing war, hunger, misery and exploitation.
âWe donât k now how many Alans, how many Samuels, how many men and women lie at the bottom of the sea without their families knowing anything,â said the Human Rights Association of AndalucÃa. âAll of them had a life and a story that Europe cannot ignore.â
MarÃa JesÃºs Vega, a spokeswoman for UNHCR Spain, says last yearâs sharp rise was probably down to a combination of factors: Italyâs controversial efforts to stop people crossing from Libya; conflicts in parts of sub-Saharan Africa; unrest in the Rif region of Morocco; the effects of climate change; people trafficking; and changes to visas.Refugees can achieve so much if theyâre not caged in isolated camps | David Patrikarakos Read more
On a single day last August, the Spanish coastguard rescued 593 people, including 35 children and a baby, from the strait of Gibraltar. But despite the increase, says Vega, Spain still lacks the infrastructure and resources needed to accommodate and help those who reach its shores.
âLast year we saw a lot of improvisation when it came to accommodating people â" you had people in cells, sports centres and sometimes in prisons. Sometimes there isnât even enough space in those places so people end up on the streets. That obviously isnât a solution.â
Equally pressing is the need to quickly identify and protect vulnerable migrants and refugees, including victims of people trafficking and unaccompanied minors. The Spanish government says it has spent more than a decade working to build a migration policy that helps potential migrants stay in their own countries.
âThe solution to irregular immigration is necessarily a matter of creating opportunities in countries of origin and working to improve the paths of legal migration,â says a spokesman for the interior ministry.
âThese two big areas are fundamental to the proper management of migrant flows, which are a phenomenon that has always existed and will alw ays exist. However, we must be aware that the fruits of such work cannot be reaped over a short time period.â
Spainâs crisis is still dwarfed by the situation in the central Mediterranean. Last year, almost 119,000 people reached Italy by sea; a further 2,832 died.
For Delgado, the âterrible, tragic disgraceâ unfolding on the frontiers of southern Europe calls for a more compassionate and practical approach. Instead of looking at ways to strengthen its borders, he says, Europe should be focusing on the suffering of those in âpowder kegâ countries in Africa. At the moment, though, 2018 âis heading in the same directionâ as the previous year.
The priest, who serves as director of the diocese of CÃ¡diz and Ceutaâs migrant assistance foundation, the Everyoneâs Land centre, has buried more refugees and migrants than he can remember. Sometimes there is neither a name nor a definitive date of death.
âItâs one of the things I fin d most difficult. You never get used to the burials. Every tragedy is different but they all have something in common: great suffering and individual stories of famine or war or injustice, but also the people and the countries they left behind.â
Delgado says the people of Barbate â" a town on one of the frontlines of the migration crisis â" are still shocked by Samuelâs death. Its residents packed the church where his funeral was held and, on the second Wednesday of every month, people gather in the town and in other parts of AndalucÃato form âcircles of silenceâ to commemorate the dead and call for a better response to the humanitarian emergency.
The beach where Samuelâs body appeared a year ago is quiet out of season. Dogs chase balls into the surf and walkers stroll past posters for beach yoga and tuna-fishing trips. A pair of local anglers pulling on their waders point to the wreckage of a rigid inflatable boat that lies half buried in the sand beyond the rockpools.
People are used to the boats and the odd bale of drugs washing up, they say, but they never expected the sea would give up the body of a four-year-old child: âHe was just a kid. Normally itâs adults in the boats.â
In the town cemetery, a woman tending her sisterâs grave nods towards Samuelâs tomb, which is bunched with white chrysanthemums.
âUn angelito,â she says. A little angel.
For many, Samuel remains the Spanis h Alan Kurdi: one of the countless migrants who lie in graves on either side of the strait or at the bottom of the sea, a small symbol of a vast crisis that manages to provoke incredulity, indignation and indifference in equal measure.
But when Delgado thinks of Samuel, he remembers the pictures he has seen of him and his family in Kinshasa.
âI think,â he says, âof a little boy with a smile on his face.âTopics
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