What next for Aquarius migrants in Spain?

Spain's new Socialist government has offered to take in the 629 migrants aboard the Aquarius rescue ship that was stranded in the Mediterranean after Italy and Malta refused to let it dock.

What next for Aquarius migrants in Spain?
Rescued migrants and MSF personnel on board an Italian coastguard ship following their transfer from the French NGO's ship Aquarius on route to Spain. Photo: AFP / MSF/SOS MEDITERRANEE / KARPO

READ ALSO: Spain will take stranded migrants to 'avoid a castastrophe'

The Aquarius is transporting 106 migrants to Valencia having left Italy on Tuesday night for the 4-day journey is expected to arrive on late Saturday or early Sunday.

The rest of the 523 migrants that had been rescued by the SOS Mediteranee NGO ship have been transferred to the Dattilo and the Orione, the two largest ships in the Italian Coast Guard fleet, which will bring them to Valencia.

The sea conditions are stormy, with many of those on board reportedly suffering from seasickness.

On arrival in Valencia

Spain´s Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo (R) and Valencian regional President Ximo Puig (L) give a press conference in Valencia as the city prepares for the arrival of hundreds of migrants stranded for days on the French NGO's ship Aquarius. Photo: AFP

The arrival of the three ships transporting the group of rescued migrants will be staggered so there is time to assess and process each of those on board, explained Carmen Calvo, the deputy PM on Thursday.

After meeting with Ximo Puig, the regional president of Valencia to coordinate the arrival, she said that the migrants would be dealt with in a specific area of the cruise terminal at the port in Valencia and that each of the 629 migrants would be dealt be given “personalized attention”.

“Some will then be taken directly to migrant detention centres (CIE)  and other to humanitarian aid centres depending on their condition,” she said, adding that the priority was to address the humanitarian crisis and then deal with the legal status of each migrant.

“We are worried about the unaccompanied children, and the people who have been victims of some sort of crime. Such as those who have been trafficked with the purpose of sexual exploitation,” she said.

Those who need medical treatment will be transferred to hospitals where spaces have been allocated.

Migrants or refugees?

Anyone stepping foot on Spanish soil has the legal right to request asylum, so those rescued by the Aquarius may indeed request protection claiming fear of persecution in their own countries.

Those who come from countries such as Congo, South Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia, Adghanistan or Syria have a legitimate claim and will likely be allowed to process an asylum claim.

However, for those from countries such as Morocco, Senegal, Ghana or Algeria, an asylum claim is more complicated.

Just like any other arrivals

File photo of rescued migrants arriving in southern Spain. Photo: AFP

Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska said during an interview with radio Cope on Thursday that these migrants would be treated “in the same way” as the more than 9,000 migrants who have reached Spain by sea so far this year.

“It will be decided if a person should receive protection or not” by distinguishing between those who have endured “all sorts of calamities” to qualify for asylum, and those who come for “economic reasons”, the minister said.

Arrivals by sea double 

Since the start of the year, over 9,300 migrants reached Spain's shores by sea, more than double the figure for the same period last year, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

The number of migrants who died while trying to reach Spain by sea has more than quadrupled to 244 as of June 10th from 61 last year during the same period.   

Most migrants travel in packed boats from Morocco's northern shore to Spain's southern coast, a distance of over 100 kilometres (60 miles) depending on the route.

Spain was the third most popular destination for migrants in the European Union last year after Italy and Greece.

What happens after they arrive?

After passing through a police station to be identified, migrants are usually taken to one of seven longer-term immigration detention centres where they wait for up to 60 days for their fate to be decided.

Some 8,800 people passed through these centres last year, according to official figures. Human rights Watch and other rights groups complain that migrants are held in poor conditions in these centres and face obstacles in applying for asylum.

“A lot of people are released into the streets after 72 hours (at a police station), because currently there are no more places in the centres,” Carlos Arce, migration coordinator at the Human Rights Association of Andalusia (APDHA), told AFP.

These migrants are left to fend for themselves, without any follow-up or help from the government, he added.

For those who manage to formally seek asylum, the system is saturated.

Is there a 'siren call' risk?

A sign formerly hanging on Madrid's City Hall. Photo: AFP

The government's decision to take in the migrants from the Aquarius, operated by SOS Mediterranee, has been generally well received in Spain, with dozens of cities and regions offering to give them shelter.

But the conservative Popular Party which ran Spain for six years, until they were ousted in a no-confidence vote on June 1st, quickly sounded the alarm that the move would act as a “siren call” for more migrants.

While the number of migrants arriving in Spain by sea has doubled, in Italy arrivals by sea have dropped by 73 percent over the same period last year to 14,330 as of June 10, according to IOM figures.

Change in policy?

Sanchez cited “humanitarian reasons” for agreeing to accept the migrants from the Aquarius ship. The gesture contrasted with the policy under his conservative predecessor Mariano Rajoy whose government was often accused of only reluctantly accepting migrants.

“Spain is far from respecting the quota of migrants that has been assigned each country” by the European Commission, Spanish foreign Minister Josep Borrell said Wednesday.

The country pledged to receive 9,323 refugees who arrived in Greece and Italy but as of May 31st it had only welcomed 1,359, according to the Commission.

READ ALSO: Spain's new interior minister just promised to remove razor wire at Melilla and Ceuta borders


How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.