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.”

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


EXPLAINED: What are the main obstacles to finding a job when moving to an EU country?

Moving to another country is never easy, as it requires going through cultural changes and administrative formalities. It can be even more complicated when looking for a job.

EXPLAINED: What are the main obstacles to finding a job when moving to an EU country?

According to new data released by the EU statistical office, Eurostat, the knowledge of the national language and the recognition of professional qualifications are the two most common obstacles experienced by foreign-born people in finding a ‘suitable’ job in countries of the European Union.

Overall, about a quarter of people born outside the EU who had experience in working or looking for work in the bloc reported some difficulties getting a ‘suitable’ job for level of education (without considering the field of expertise or previous experience).

The Eurostat analysis shows that the situation is better for EU citizens moving within the bloc. But there are major differences depending on countries and gender.

Life can be more difficult for women

In 2021, 13.2 percent of men and 20.3 percent of women born in another European Union country reported obstacles in getting a suitable job in the EU place of residence.

These proportions however increase to 20.9 percent for men and 27.3 percent for women born in a non-EU country with a high level of development (based on the United Nations’ Human Development Index) and 31.1 percent for men and 35.7 percent for women from non-EU countries with a low or medium level of development.

Finland (42.9 percent), Sweden (41.7 percent), Luxembourg (34.6 percent) and France (32.1 percent) are the countries with the highest shares of people born outside the EU reporting problems. Norway, which is not part of the bloc, has an even higher percentage, 45.2, and Switzerland 34.3 percent.

In contrast, Cyprus (11.2 percent), Malta (10.9 percent), Slovenia (10.2 percent), Latvia (10 percent) and Lithuania (6.7 percent) have the lowest proportion of people born outside the EU reporting difficulties.

Lack of language skills

The lack of skills in the national language is most commonly cited as a hurdle, and it is even more problematic for women.

This issue was reported by 4.2 percent of men born in another EU country, 5.3 percent of those born in a developed country outside the EU and 9.7 percent of those from a non-EU country with a middle or low level of development. The corresponding shares for women, however, were 5.6, 6.7 and 10.5 percent respectively.

The countries where language skills were more likely to be reported by non-EU citizens as an obstacle in getting a relevant job were Finland (22.8 percent), Luxembourg (14.7 percent) and Sweden (13.1 percent).

As regards other countries covered by The Local, the percentage of non-EU citizens citing the language as a problem was 12.4 percent in Austria, 10.2 percent in Denmark, 7.8 percent in France, 5.1 percent in Italy, 2.7 percent in Spain, 11.1 percent on Norway and 10.1 percent in Switzerland. Data is not available for Germany.

Portugal (77.4 percent), Croatia (68.8 percent), Hungary (58.8 percent) and Spain (58.4 percent) have the highest share of people from outside the EU already speaking the language as a mother tongue before arriving, while more than 70 percent of non-EU citizens residing in Denmark, Finland, Luxembourg and Norway said they had participated in language courses after arrival.

Lisbon Portugal

Portugal has the highest share of people from outside the EU already speaking the language as a mother tongue before arriving. (Photo by Aayush Gupta on Unsplash)

Recognition of qualifications

Another hurdle on the way to a relevant job in EU countries is the lack of recognition of a formal qualification obtained abroad. This issue was reported by 2 percent of men and 3.8 percent of women born in another EU country. It was also mentioned by 3.3 percent of men and 5.9 percent of women born in a developed country outside the EU, and 4.8 percent of men and 4.6 percent of women born in a less developed non-EU country.

Eurostat says this reflects an “unofficial distrust” among employers of qualification obtained abroad and the “low official validation of foreign education”.

The lack of availability of a suitable job was another factor mentioned in the survey. In Croatia, Portugal and Hungary, this was the main obstacle to getting an adequate position.

This issue concerned 3.3 percent of men and 4.5 percent of women born in another EU country, 4.2 percent of men and 5 percent of women born in a developed non-EU country It also worried 3.9 percent of men and 5.1 percent of women born in a less developed non-EU country.

Restricted right to work due to citizenship or residence permits, as well as plain discrimination on the grounds of origin were also cited as problems.

Discrimination was mostly reported by people born in a less developed non-EU country (3.1 percent for men and 3.3 percent for women) compared to people born in highly developed non-EU countries (1.9 percent for men and 2.2 percent for women).

Citizenship and residence permits issues are unusual for people from within the EU. For people from outside the EU, this is the only area where women seem to have fewer problems than men: 1.6 percent of women from developed non-EU countries reported this issue, against 2.1 percent of men, with the share increasing to 2.8 and 3.3 percent respectively for women and men from less developed non-EU states.

The article is published in cooperation with Europe Street News, a news outlet about citizens’ rights in the EU and the UK.