Spanish court suspends repatriation of minors to Morocco

A court in Spain has suspended the repatriation to Morocco of a group of unaccompanied minors who were among thousands of migrants who crossed into the Spanish enclave of Ceuta three months ago.

Spanish court suspends repatriation of minors to Morocco
Migrants, including minors, who arrived swimming at the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, rest as Spanish soldiers stand guard on May 18, 2021 in Ceuta. Photo: Antonio Sempere / AFP

Two human rights groups took legal action on their behalf after Spain on Friday began sending back some 800 unaccompanied child migrants to Morocco in groups of 15.

The court ruling may make it difficult for Spain to go ahead with plans to repatriate the roughly 800 unaccompanied minors in their care.

The rights campaigners had asked a court in Ceuta to stop the deportation of 12 migrants who had sought their help to stay.

The migrant children were being deported to Morocco without having had access to a lawyer or the chance to make their arguments, said Patricia Fernandez Vicens, the lawyer for one of the rights groups, Coordinadora de Barrios.

“It is an activity that is legal and possible as long as it is carried out with a series of guarantees,” she told AFP.

The court in Ceuta agreed to hear the case and said “the only decision possible” was to order the suspension of the deportation of the 12 minors while it considers arguments.

While that may complicate moves by Spain to deport the other minors, three of the migrants the activists were defending have already been sent back to Morocco.

They were among up to 10,000 migrants who crossed the land border into Ceuta over several days in May as Moroccan border guards stood aside.

Earlier Monday, Spanish Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska defended sending unaccompanied children back to Morocco, saying “vulnerable” migrants were not among those being repatriated.

“The best interest of the child is guaranteed,” he told news radio station Cadena Ser.

Most of the migrants were returned to Morocco soon after they arrived in May, but at the end of July some 2,500 remained in Ceuta, according to the authorities there.

READ MORE: What happens to the thousands of undocumented migrants after they arrive in Spain?

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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.