Should they stay or should they go: Spain struggles to set migrant policy

In June, Spain welcomed the Aquarius migrant rescue ship with open arms. Then in August, Madrid sent back to Morocco more than 100 men who had forced their way into its overseas territory of Ceuta.

Should they stay or should they go: Spain struggles to set migrant policy
Photos: AFP

The apparent U-turn has led to questions over the migration policy of the new Socialist government of Spain, which has overtaken Italy to become the preferred destination of people wanting to get to Europe.

Criticised by the conservative opposition when it insisted on opening its doors, the recent expulsion has drawn stinging reproof from activists and sarcastic glee from the likes of Italy's far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini.

When Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez came to power on June 1 after ousting his conservative rival Mariano Rajoy, he scored a coup in Europe by opening up the eastern port of Valencia to the Aquarius.

The charity ship had made headlines after being refused entry in Italy and Malta despite having 630 migrants on board whom it had saved off the coast of Libya.

At the time, Sanchez's government had also announced it intended to facilitate healthcare access to illegal immigrants.

It also planned to remove barbed wire from the fences sealing off Ceuta and Melilla, another overseas Spanish territory in Morocco, which regularly tears through the hands and legs of migrants trying to scramble over.

But this had been strongly criticised by the conservative opposition who accused the Socialists of creating a “pull factor” for illegal immigration and encouraging human traffickers.

So far this year more than 32,000 migrants have arrived in Spain by sea and land, according to the International Organization for Migration — more than double arrivals for the same period in 2017.

After the Aquarius, another charity ship belonging to the NGO Open Arms was allowed to dock in Spanish ports three times.

But in mid-August, the Madrid decided to negotiate with other European states to divvy up migrants saved by the Aquarius, which was allowed to dock in Malta rather than Spain.

That was an early sign of change.

Then last week, Spain sent back to Morocco more than 100 migrants who had forced their way over the high double-fence of Ceuta in a mass expulsion condemned by human rights activists.

On Wednesday, two migrants suspected of being the ringleaders of another violent storming of the fence at the end of July were detained.

“We won't allow violent migration that attacks our country and our security forces,” Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska said Wednesday.

Salvini gleeful

The apparent about-turn has drawn contempt from critics.

“The government is only right when it backs down,” Pablo Casado, head of the conservative Popular Party, said after the mass expulsion.

Activists, meanwhile, are fuming.

Helena Maleno, famed for her defence of migrants, slammed the measure on Monday as a “racist and colonialist policy”.

Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo denied there had been any change, saying Spain's immigration policy followed two principles — “the respect of human rights and border security”.

Gemma Pinyol, a migration expert at consultancy Instrategies, said she believed the government “wanted to make an example and show they are taking decisions, so that people don't say it's a paradise of free entry”.

Even Europe's far-right movement waded in.

“Spain is showing us how to deal with illegal immigrants,” Alice Weidel of Germany's Alternative for Germany party, tweeted ironically.

Italy's Interior Minister Matteo Salvini (above) also responded with glee.

“If Spain does it, it's ok, but if I suggest it, I'm racist, fascist and inhuman,” he said on Twitter.

Politics expert Cristina Monge said this had discredited Sanchez.

“He had shown signs of having a more coherent policy, more ambitious, and this contradicts him so much that it's making him lose credibility,” she told AFP.

Badly prepared

Pinyol believes people were too quick in thinking things would change radically from Mariano Rajoy's previous conservative government, which didn't honour its commitments where migration was concerned.

The Supreme Court even ordered the state in July to take in more refugees after ruling it had only welcomed less than 13 percent of the asylum seekers Rajoy had promised to accept in 2015.

“The change is in asking Europe to take on more responsibility,” said Pinyol.

But “if Spain says that and no one follows, it won't be of any use.”

She thinks Spain hasn't prepared well enough to take in migrants.

“The reception system should have been updated. The centres in Ceuta and Melilla are always saturated,” she said.



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.