At Spain’s northern border, migrants’ holy grail is France

Crossing from Irún in Spain to the French border town of Hendaye is the last obstacle for young migrants desperate to reach France, their desired destination whatever the cost.

French police officers (L) detain four migrants trying to cross the Santiago Spanish-French border bridge between Irun (Spain) and Hendaye (France), on January 13, 2022.
French police officers (L) detain four migrants trying to cross the Santiago Spanish-French border bridge between Irun (Spain) and Hendaye (France), on January 13, 2022. Photo: Ander Guillenea/AFP

“Guys, we’ve got to get out of here!” urges Junior, a 20-year-old migrant from Ivory Coast, breaking the tense silence inside the train crossing the Spanish border into France.

Many come from former French colonies in West Africa where French is widely spoken and want to join family members living and working in France.

But at the station in Hendaye, French police are on patrol.

With Junior are five other migrants from Mali, Guinea and Ivory Coast. But only he dares get off the train.

“You don’t have a visa, you can’t come here,” one of the police officers tells him after glancing through his passport.

When they think the coast is clear, the other five quickly drop down onto the tracks.

“Stay where you are!” bellows a policeman, prompting one of the young migrants to race for a two-metre fence which he scrambles over, disappearing off into the streets.

But the others freeze as the police approach and give them forms marked “entry refused”. They are then put back on the train to the Spanish border town of Irun, an AFP correspondent said.


A migrant escapes running after crossing the border between Irun (Spain) and Hendaye (France) in the French Basque city of Hendaye on January 13, 2022.Photo: ANDER GILLENEA/AFP

Increasingly dangerous

To get here, many of these migrants have already made the perilous journey between the African coast and Spain’s Canary Islands, braving the Atlantic in barely seaworthy ramshackle boats.

Last year, 13,164 people were turned away at the French-Spanish border in the Pyrenees-Atlantiques region of France, which Hendaye is part of, more than twice that of 2020, French interior ministry figures show.

The figures are higher due to increased vigilance and more migrants travelling given the easing of Covid travel restrictions put in place at the start of the pandemic.

With increased patrols on both sides of the border, migrants are taking ever more risks, according to researchers, NGOs and local officials.

Last year, two Ivorians and a Guinean migrant drowned while trying to swim the Bidassoa River which marks the border. And in October, three Algerians who managed to cross into France died after being hit by a train.

On Santiago Bridge, which crosses the Bidassoa, French police carry out periodic checks on vehicles, while the adjacent pedestrian bridge has been closed off with huge metal fences nearly three metres (10 foot) high.

In Irun, 20-year-old Yakuba steps out from the Red Cross migrant reception centre to smoke a cigarette.

Along his nose runs a large scar he got scaling the huge spike-topped metal fence separating Spain’s Melilla enclave from Morocco in June.

“I’ve got one on my foot too, there was a lot of blood,” shrugs Yakuba, who says he left Mali “because of the war”.


People hold torches during a protest march at the Spanish-French border crossing bridge between Irún (Spain) and Hendaye (France), following the death of a migrant two days ago while he attempted to swim across the Bidasoa river. Photo: ANDER GILLENEA/AFP

After several unsuccessful attempts to cross into France over the Pyrenees, by train and finally on the Santiago Bridge, Yakuba is considering the “taxi mafia” — smugglers who charge €150 ($170) to cross the border.

But in the end, he manages to cross the bridge on his second attempt.

Controversial police checks

Although France and Spain are part of the passport-free Schengen zone, routine immigration checks were reinstated following the 2015 Paris attacks that killed 130 people.

Since then, police numbers have doubled, the interior ministry says.

But rights groups claim the checks only target people based on the colour of their skin.

“In reality, the checks are exclusively focused on black people,” says Xabier Legarreta, a member of the Basque regional government, echoing complaints by Amnesty International and French migrant support groups La Cimade and Anafe.

People are turned away “without any respect for their fundamental rights,” explains Bilbao University law professor Iker Barbero. Even those seeking refugee status are “sent straight back” and “prevented” from claiming asylum, he adds.

“It is not the police’s job to decide” whether they can claim asylum or not, he says. Nor are they permitted to turn away unaccompanied minors who, under international law, “must be protected”, Barbero adds.

On the Spanish side, police speaking on condition of anonymity criticised the legal uncertainty, saying they felt “powerless” over the constant back-and-forth of migrants sent back by France and then released in Spain, but who kept trying to cross back.


French police officers check the documents of a migrant (2R) at the Hendaye’s train station on January 13, 2022. With increased patrols on both sides of the border, migrants are taking ever more risks. (Photo by ANDER GILLENEA / AFP)

‘I’ll just keep on trying’

But one government representative in France’s Pyrenees Atlantic region, Theophile de Lassus, rejects such allegations. He says entry rules “apply to everyone” and are “fully respected”.

Migrants “who choose to enter without applying for a visa or a residency permit are turned away,” he told AFP, rejecting claims migrants were not always informed about their rights and that minors were sent back.

In 2019, only four percent of illegal migrants arrested in Spain’s San Sebastian province, where Irun is located, were sent back to their country of origin, according to internal data consulted by AFP.

With France holding the EU rotating presidency, President Emmanuel Macron wants to amend the bloc’s free movement rules to allow immigration checks several kilometres from internal borders.

France and Spain are planning to launch a new joint immigration patrol in the summer.

But Junior is not put off.

“My aim is France… and I’m going to keep on trying.”

Abdul, a 24-year-old Ivorian, agrees.

“It can’t be worse than crossing the Atlantic, so we’re not going to be put off now.”

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Spain’s doors open to Russian citizens, foreign minister says

Spain's Foreign Minister has said that Russian citizens are welcome in Spain despite the EU's suspension of its visa agreement with Russia, as the mass exodus of thousands of people continues following Putin's conscription call.

Spain's doors open to Russian citizens, foreign minister says

Spain’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, José Manuel Albares, has stated publicly that Spain’s doors are open to Russian citizens fleeing the country.

Speaking on Monday, Albares said that Spain is “totally favourable” to Russian citizens who “share our values.”

Speaking against the backdrop of mass protests in Russia against Putin’s mobilisation of thousands that has caused a mass exodus to the border, Albares reaffirmed that Spain is “aware that there are many people who do not want this war,” and that “Europe has nothing against Russian citizens.”

After the European Union suspended the visa agreement signed with Moscow at the beginning of September, he was keen to make clear that this did not mean Spain was closed to Russians fleeing Putin’s regime. “The decision was made not to block completely… [for] people who are opposing the war, the members of NGOs, the defenders of human rights, the journalists who are risking their lives…”

READ ALSO: Spain sends 200 tonnes of military material to Ukraine

In light of the visa suspension, Spain will return to a system of individual interviews on a case-by-case basis.

“It’s not that there is suddenly an avalanche of Russian citizens and we don’t know who is entering,” Albares said, quelling security fears, “that’s why it’s going to be analysed on a case-by-case basis.

“Those who speak our language, those who reach out to us, those who share our values have to have a place among us,” he added.

As for the illegal referendums the Russians are attempting to undertake in annexed territories, Albares aligned himself with his European colleagues and claimed that the results would not be recognised by Spain or any other EU member state. 

He also confirmed that a new set of economic sanctions is being put together in Brussels, and that “there is no real indication” Putin is considering the use of nuclear weapons or will stray from conventional war methods.

Spaniards should, he added, not be “distressed” about this possibility. 

READ ALSO: How much influence does Russia have over Spain?