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Migrants sit in front of Spanish police officers at the port of Algeciras, southern Spain, July 31, 2018 (AP photo by Marcos Moreno).

Spain Is the New Magnet for Europe-Bound Migrants. How Will They Be Received?

Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018

MALAGA, Spain—On a recent Wednesday morning, Montee Thompson sat on the edge of a concrete planter box outside the central bus station in this coastal town in southern Spain, where palm trees dot the landscape and, during the summer months, tourists come by the busload to sun themselves on the beach. The 36-year-old was unsure of where he was, or what he should do next.

Originally from Liberia, Thompson had arrived in Spain the previous weekend, having traveled from Morocco in a small rubber boat carrying 15 other men. The group spent nearly a full day adrift at sea before the Spanish coast guard found them and brought them ashore in the coastal town of Algeciras. Members of the Red Cross briefly examined them before turning them over to the police.

Three days later, Thompson was released and put on a bus destined for Malaga with 54 other men, all of them recent arrivals from different parts of Africa. Their bus arrived in the middle of the night. The men had no contacts in Malaga, yet they were told to disembark and weren’t given any further instructions.

By the time I met the group the following morning, they had been wandering around the bus station for more than 12 hours. They didn’t have food or money. Most of their phones were dead after their long journeys at sea, and they had no way to charge them. “We are still here because we don’t know where to go,” a man from Guinea said. “The police told us that maybe an NGO would come and get us, but so far no one has come.”

Listen to Malia Politzer discuss this article on WPR’s Trend Lines Podcast. Her audio starts at 21:58.



The men are not alone in having chosen Spain as their gateway to Europe. Some 2,000 other migrants arrived in the country the same weekend they did. According to the International Organization for Migration, more than 22,500 migrants reached the Spanish coast by sea in the first seven months of this year—more than in all of 2017. Another 307 have died trying. As Italy’s populist government continues to pursue hard-line anti-migrant policies, Spain has recently replaced Italy as the top destination for Europe-bound migrants.

The uptick has roughly coincided with the early days of Spain’s new socialist, center-left government led by Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who was sworn into office in early June. Sanchez came to power after a corruption scandal triggered a no-confidence vote that ended the tenure of his predecessor, Mariano Rajoy, from the more conservative People’s Party. He lost no time setting himself apart from Rajoy on a number of issues, perhaps most prominently immigration.

In June, Sanchez announced that he’d bring back free health care for undocumented migrants, which the previous government had slashed as a cost-cutting measure. He also said he would remove razor wire from fences dividing Spain’s North African enclaves, Ceuta and Melilla, from Morocco. The razor wire is a controversial deterrence tool that has injured many migrants attempting to climb into Spanish territory.

In public statements, Spain’s new government has rejected the term “mass migration”—a phrase that has fueled the rise of populist, anti-migrant parties in other parts of the continent, and that is increasingly being deployed by opposition parties in Spain. “We are trivializing the term ‘mass,’” Josep Borrell, the new foreign minister, said during a press conference in July by way of explaining the government’s position.

But the biggest move, in terms of its symbolic power, came in late June, when Sanchez announced that Spain would accept 629 migrants and asylum-seekers who had been stranded at sea for days aboard the Aquarius, a rescue ship operated by the charities SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders. The ship had previously been blocked from docking by the governments of Italy and Malta. Upon arriving in Valencia, the migrants were greeted by translators, lawyers, trauma experts and medical personnel. They were also given special 45-day residency permits to use while their asylum applications were fast-tracked. The story made headlines around the world, earning Sanchez praise from human rights activists and international aid groups.

There are indications that Sanchez intends to go further in his promotion of migrant-friendly policies for Spain and Europe at large. In early August, he signed a bilateral agreement with German Chancellor Angela Merkel that calls for his government to take back migrants who, after applying for asylum in Spain, traveled on to Germany. He has also joined Merkel in pushing for more EU resources for the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, which is intended to address “root causes of irregular migration.”

While Sanchez’s stance may appear exceptional in the current political climate, he is merely following in the footsteps of past leaders of his Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, known by its Spanish acronym, PSOE. At the same time, the party’s approach to the issue is more nuanced than recent media coverage has indicated, reflecting the intricacies of Spain’s history and domestic politics.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez talks with journalists as he leaves an EU summit in Brussels,
Belgium, June 29, 2018 (AP photo by Geert Vanden Wijngaert).

But it is unclear whether Sanchez’s policies are sustainable. So far, Spaniards have been supportive of his relatively migrant-friendly approach, though there are some exceptions. The People’s Party, or PP, unsurprisingly has been critical, saying Sanchez’s actions send a dangerous signal that Spain is “open” to all migrants. There are also mounting concerns about how the processing of new arrivals is being managed.

Since the Aquarius was permitted to dock, Spain has received several additional rescue boats carrying migrants, to much less fanfare. Unlike the Aquarius arrivals, none of the passengers on these other boats were offered fast-tracked asylum applications, nor were they given special 45-day residency permits. Instead, the government said they would be processed as normal according to Spanish law.

Migrants rescued from small rubber boats by the Spanish coast guard—including Thompson, the 36-year-old from Liberia—often receive little official attention at all. As they continue to arrive, Spain’s small coastal towns are struggling to accommodate them.

In Thompson’s case, he said there were no translators on hand when he and his fellow migrants arrived in Algeciras, making communication with the Spanish authorities difficult. Nor does he recall having ever met with a lawyer, despite the fact that Spanish law requires that a lawyer screen asylum applicants before they are released from police custody.

Stranger still, the police officers bought Thompson and the other men bus tickets to Malaga without bothering to tell anyone they were coming, effectively ensuring they would be stranded at the bus station. These so-called “abandonments,” as human rights groups have termed them, have become increasingly common across southern Spain. There have been three so far in Malaga, and two more in Granada, an inland town two hours north.

Recently, the central government has begun to take steps to stop the practice of abandonments by redistributing asylum seekers between different municipalities, and providing local governments with emergency funding for housing, according to Jemi Sanchez, who works for Granada’s City Council. But Sanchez says a more meaningful step would be to reform the Alien’s Act, which governs how the state treats migrants. Currently, the law allows police to put migrants in custody for 72 hours before releasing them, putting them in immigration detention or deporting them.

Spain has earned plaudits for its relatively welcoming stance toward migrants, but there are mounting concerns about how the new arrivals are being processed.

“The fact that they are trying to assume their responsibility gives me hope,” she says, referring to the government’s efforts. “But there’s still a lot that needs to be done.”

Not Spain’s First Rodeo

This year is not the first time Spain has had to grapple with a sudden migration spike. Between 1999 and 2009, the foreign-born population of Spain increased more than nine-fold, from just 750,000, or 1.5 percent of the total, to over 6.5 million, or 14 percent.

By 2004, according to the best available estimates, more than 1 million of these migrants were unauthorized. Some of them had come on tourist visas, but many others had arrived by boat, mostly from Morocco.

Since the early 1980s, power in Madrid has gone back and forth between the PSOE and the PP. The way these two parties have responded to past demographic shifts has set the tone for the country’s current migration debate.

The PP has generally focused on finding ways to keep unauthorized migrants out of Spain. Jose Maria Aznar, a former prime minister from the PP who was in office from 1996 to 2004, stressed the importance of border security and deterrence. In 2000, he amended previous legislation that had given unauthorized migrants access to health care, education through secondary school, and the right to join unions, arguing that these conditions made Spain a magnet for unauthorized migration. He also introduced a high-tech surveillance system—considered one of the most sophisticated in the world—called the Integral Systems of External Surveillance, which used radar, infrared sensors and night cameras to monitor the international waters between Spain and Morocco.

The PSOE, on the other hand, has emphasized more comprehensive immigration policies intended to bring unauthorized migrants into the formal economy. This was evident in the more liberal approach of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the prime minister who succeeded Aznar. In 2006, his government passed a measure to allow more than 570,000 unauthorized people to attain legal status, the largest such measure in Spanish history. Zapatero also passed a series of laws making it easier for employers to hire foreigners. And after the economic crisis struck in 2008, the PSOE paid for unemployed foreign workers to voluntarily return to their countries of origin to relieve pressure on the failing economy.

More recently, Rajoy, the PP prime minister who preceded Sanchez, kept a relatively low profile when it came to migration. He slashed health care for migrants, refused to accept asylum-seekers during the height of the European refugee crisis in 2015, and got rid of several high-level government positions linked to migration and integration. But when human rights groups criticized these moves, Rajoy justified them in economic terms and avoided employing anti-migrant rhetoric, which has never played well with Spaniards.

Now back in power, the PSOE is poised to return to the policies of the Zapatero era, a fact underscored by the fact that Sanchez has appointed many members of the team that served in Zapatero’s Cabinet. “It’s quite clear that the current government has a more open orientation toward migration than the previous one,” says Joaquin Arango, a professor of sociology at the Complutense University of Madrid and the director of the Center for the Study of Migration and Citizenship at the Ortega and Gasset Research Institute in Madrid.

The Original Fortress Europe

Yet even at its most inclusive, the Spanish government’s approach to migration has come with an important qualifier: its management of the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, the territories in northern Morocco. For nearly two decades, both PP- and PSOE-led governments have invested heavily in enforcing the borders separating them from Morocco.

Spain’s policies in Ceuta and Melilla can be seen as forerunners of those embraced by some European countries responding to the more recent increase in migrant arrivals, including Italy’s controversial collaboration with the Libyan coast guard. Spain’s political leaders also pioneered the EU’s policy of “border externalization”—a term that broadly describes the transfer of border management to third countries.

For many years, the only border between Morocco and Melilla was a road. Jose Palazon, an activist and founder of the Association for the Rights of Children, a Melilla-based organization that advocates on behalf of undocumented youth, remembers when fruit vendors from Morocco could cross in the morning and leave at night, unmolested by border guards or checkpoints. “They’d come to Spain to work, then tranquilly return to their homes in Morocco at night,” he says. “There wasn’t really a border.”

In 1993, however, Spain began the construction of the first two fences around the two territories. In 2005, Zapatero began construction on the third and final fence in Melilla.

Despite the fencing, many people continue to attempt to enter the Spanish territories. Thompson, the Liberian migrant I met in Malaga, told me that, before traveling by sea, he tried to climb the fencing twice in Ceuta and once in Melilla—and he has the scars to prove it. “This is where I cut myself on the razor wire,” he said, raising his hand to reveal a vertical line of shiny skin extending from his wrist down to his elbow. “There were other men who were cut worse.”

Migrants from sub-Saharan Africa climb over a fence that divides Morocco and the Spanish enclave
of Melilla, March 28, 2014 (AP photo by Santi Palacios).

Human rights organizations have long criticized the use of razor wire as inhumane and cruel, which is likely what prompted Sanchez to promise in June to have it removed from the fencing surrounding both territories. However, for Palazon, the razor wire is a relatively minor issue compared to other problems with how Spain enforces its border.

On a recent summer day in Melilla, Palazon brought me to a hill overlooking the three layers of fencing that divide Spain from Morocco. Roughly 10-feet tall, the fencing stretches for nearly 7 miles—completely surrounding the perimeter of the small city—and extends along the sandy white beach before ending a few hundred feet out in the sea. From our vantage point on the hilltop, a white Moroccan border patrol vehicle was visible through the fence, cruising down a dirt road running along the Moroccan side.

“Here you can see everything you need to about the border,” Palazon said. “There you can see the razor wire between the two fences—but that’s not really the problem. People find ways around it. The problem is the Moroccan border guards.”

According to Palazon, both Spanish and Moroccan border guards have been known to beat migrants attempting to breach the fence—sometimes to death. In 2005, six people were shot and killed by Moroccan border guards when 600 migrants equipped with homemade ladders charged the border fence in Melilla.

“It was very violent,” said Palazon, who witnessed the event. “The Moroccan guards weren’t just beating the people trying to climb the fence; they shot them. The Spanish shoot people too—but they used rubber bullets. The Moroccans used live ammo. There were many deaths.”

Palazon regularly videotapes human rights abuses that take place at the border and uploads them to his NGO’s Vimeo site. In one of them, dated October 2014, roughly 20 young men can be seen straddling the third and final border fence in Melilla. Below them are a dozen Spanish border guards, clad in riot gear and wielding batons. The border guards shake the fence, trying to dislodge the migrants. The camera zooms in on “Danny,” a 23-year old Cameroonian wearing a bright purple shirt, as he carefully lowers himself toward the ground on the Spanish side. As he nears the border guards, they begin to beat him with batons. After a blow to the head, he falls to the ground, apparently unconscious. The last frame shows the guards unlocking a door in the fence between the two countries and carrying Danny’s limp body back across to the Moroccan side. Luckily, Danny survived. Palazon helped him file a case against the Spanish border guards in the European Court of Human Rights; the case is still pending.

Public outcry generated by such videos, and by the increasingly common reports of migrant deaths, has largely put an end to beatings and the use of rubber bullets by Spanish guards. Abuses at the hands of Moroccan guards, however, seem to continue unchecked.

Abdulah Barry, a 16-year-old from Mali who I met outside the temporary immigration center in Melilla, recounted how one of his friends broke a foot when the Moroccan border guards pulled them both off the fence. Then just 14, Barry tried two more times to climb over the fence. Both times, the Moroccans beat him, he said. The fact that he was clearly a minor didn’t seem to make any difference in how he was treated. Finally, Barry gave up and decided to pay someone $250 to bring him to Melilla by boat—a journey that can be cheaper and safer than traveling overseas to the Spanish mainland, though it’s also easier to get caught and sent back to Morocco. Barry has only been permitted to stay in Melilla because he is a minor.

Despite such incidents, Spain continues to collaborate with Morocco in policing the border. “Basically Spain has subcontracted the dirty work to Morocco,” Palazon says, echoing the same argument that many human rights organizations have made about the Italy-Libya agreement. “Sanchez can remove the razor wire, but if he wants to make a difference he needs to rethink Spain’s agreement with Morocco.”

There’s also the matter of the controversial practice of devoluciones en caliente, or “hot returns,” in which Spanish border guards send newly arrived migrants back to Morocco without first assessing whether they are minors in need of protection, tending to their injuries, or giving them the opportunity to ask for asylum. This practice was roundly condemned by the European Court of Human Rights last September, which ruled it to be illegal and told the Spanish government to immediately desist. Rajoy, whose government initiated the practice of hot returns, was contesting the court’s decision when he lost the no-confidence vote in June.

Sanchez was a vocal critic of hot returns during Spain’s general election in 2015. Now that he’s prime minister, however, he has chosen to defend them. To do so, he has recycled the PP’s “flexible border” argument, which holds that since the migrants in question “have failed to overcome the police line” established by Spanish border guards, they have not officially entered “Spanish jurisdiction” and can legally be returned to Morocco.

Spain’s partnership with Morocco in curbing migration is a forerunner of Italy’s controversial collaboration with the Libyan coast guard.

The policies in Melilla and Ceuta are brutal, but they’ve been effective at diverting migrant traffic away from the enclaves—a reality that complicates campaigns to end them. Since the construction of the border fences and Spain’s engagement with Moroccan border guards, the number of mass entries has dropped significantly. In Melilla, they pretty much don’t happen anymore. And in Ceuta—where there are still occasional mass entries—the numbers are likely to drop as soon as the Moroccans finish building the third and final fence, which will put Ceuta’s infrastructure on par with what exists in Melilla today.

Arango, with the Center for the Study of Migration and Citizenship, believes Spain’s border strategies in Ceuta and Melilla should not be seen as emblematic of the country’s overall approach to migration. “The situation in Ceuta and Melilla is very peculiar—it’s a very unique case to have two cities in African territory,” he says. “Therefore, controlling the border requires measures which are problematic and unsatisfactory and at times may lead to violations of rights or at least a very gray area in which it isn’t clear whether they are correct or not.”

No Populist, Anti-Immigrant Parties…Yet

Though getting into Spain can be difficult and dangerous, migrants have largely been embraced by the Spanish once they arrive. This has set Spain apart from many other places in Europe, especially lately.

In fact, when the Rajoy administration refused to accept refugees in 2015, demonstrations were staged in many cities across Spain. “The dominant political culture has been very supportive of refugees,” Arango says. “At the height of the crisis, more than 200 or so local governments offered to host refugees—and some of them were very angry when the previous government didn’t facilitate that.”

Arango has a number of explanations for why this is the case. One important factor is the country’s political culture, which, according to Arango, has changed dramatically since the end of the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, who ruled from 1936 until his death in 1975. With Franco’s departure, Spaniards “really embraced these new idealized values associated with democracy—and rejected the values associated with dictatorship.”

There’s also Spain’s complex identity. Belonging to a country composed of several different autonomous communities that boasts five official languages, the Spanish are “not very nationalistic,” Arango says. He adds, “We don’t think very highly of ourselves, and have a more open view of what it is to be Spanish—and that translates to a greater acceptance of diversities of origin.”

Monica Cuenca Gespedes, a 40-year old resident of Malaga, has her own theory on why Spaniards might be more open to foreigners than other Europeans. A resident of one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, a fishing town largely populated by families who have lived there for generations, Cuenca says migrants who come to the local migrant reception center—a converted gym— definitely stick out. But residents are inclined to view them with compassion rather than alarm, she says, because until recently many Spaniards were migrants themselves.

“Many Spanish people, like my mother, had to leave the country during the war, or when the economy was bad,” she explains, referring to one of Spain’s many waves of emigration to Latin America and Northern Europe that took place throughout much of the 20th century. “These people who are coming from sub-Saharan Africa, or Syria—they are also coming for a better life, like we were before. Why shouldn’t we give them that opportunity? We needed it then, we know what it’s like. How can we blame them for doing the same?”

Yet this broadly welcoming stance may not hold if towns like Malaga come under greater pressure to accommodate migrants without additional resources or coordination from the government. Some of the coastal towns that have received the greatest numbers of migrant boats have already begun to feel the rumblings of discontent.

Rafael Martinez is the head of the migrant rights organization Acoge, or “Welcome.” Based in Motril, a coastal town south of Granada, he recently helped organize a demonstration protesting the construction of a new migrant detention facility.

His objection to the detention facility was humanitarian. “They are essentially prisons for what is an administrative violation,” he says. “They shouldn’t exist.”

But he soon realized that others attending the protest had different motivations. “Some people didn’t want migrants in Motril,” he says. “It wasn’t about human rights—they were worried about what having migrants there would do to the town.”

A migrant rests at the dock of the port of Algeciras, in southern Spain, after being rescued by Spain’s
Maritime Rescue Service in the Strait of Gibraltar, Aug. 1, 2018 (AP photo by Marcos Moreno).

Spain’s political climate is becoming more crowded and complex, which could have implications for how the migration debate unfolds going forward. The arrival of two new political parties in the last election cycle—a centrist party, Ciudadanos, and the more radical left Podemos party—broke the country’s traditional two-party system. Now that the PP and PSOE have to contend with more competitors, it’s possible that politicians will embrace anti-migrant rhetoric to get votes.

There are already indications that the PP may take advantage of its time in the opposition to do just that. The party’s new leader, Pablo Casados, has begun to adopt the rhetoric used by far-right parties in other parts of Europe. He was very critical of Sanchez’s decision to accept the Aquarius, and has signaled that the PP will take a harder stance on migration from now on. “While Sanchez was in Valencia receiving a boat, 1,500 immigrants were arriving in Almeria and Algeciras,” he was quoted as saying by the Spanish newspaper El Pais. “A million migrants are waiting on the coast of Libya planning a new route through Spain.”

But despite the alarmist rhetoric from Casados, Acoge’s Martinez believes that Spain’s only real migration challenge is learning how to better coordinate migrant arrivals. “In Spain, what’s really lacking is planning,” he says. “We just need to normalize it. If we can plan for 50,000 tourists, we can plan for 50,000 migrants too.”

In order to do that, however, Jemi Sanchez, the City Council staffer in Granada, believes the central government will need to offer more resources and stronger leadership. On her own initiative, she has begun to set up an informal information-sharing network connecting the cities along the Mediterranean and throughout southern Spain that have been most affected by migration. For the network to be effective, though, she says the central government needs to take a more active role.

Prime Minister Sanchez may oblige. Earlier this month, he announced that Spain would set up a central command center that would take advantage of $35 million in funding, much of it from the EU, to better coordinate migrant arrivals. The EU has also promised an additional $64 million in emergency funds for Morocco and Tunisia to try to keep migrants in those countries from leaving for Spain.

In the meantime many migrants are left to their own devices. Back in Malaga, Thompson and his fellow migrants were finally picked up from the central bus station by a van sent by the municipal government, which had been alerted to the migrants’ presence by human rights activists. The driver of the van told me they’d be taken to a hostel, where they could shower and eat before continuing their journey.

Now that Thompson is in Europe, he is thinking of going to Belgium, Denmark or Germany. “Wherever I can have money, wherever there is opportunity—that is where I will go,” he says.

Malia Politzer is an award-winning freelance journalist based out of Europe, where she writes primarily about the refugee crisis, global politics and international development. A former Pulitzer Center grantee and fellow with the Institute of Current World Affairs, she is in the process of completing a Ph.D. in migration studies at the University of Granada.

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