When the massive red hull of the Aquarius arrived in Valencia last month, the 630 migrants on board – hailing from over 20 different countries – were warmly received by nearly 2,300 Red Cross volunteers, translators, police and medical personnel. A large banner read Welcome Home in five languages. Upon disembarkation, the exhausted migrants received a permit to stay in Spain for 45 days and apply for asylum without threat of deportation.
In a move deemed both a moral and political triumph, Spain’s new Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez granted the vessel and its inhabitants Safe Harbour in Spain, ending a gruelling voyage and a standoff between the governments of Italy and Malta.
The decision – made one week into his term – was a display of humanitarian solidarity for the young prime minister of a country unaccustomed to being seen as a key player in Europe’s migratory arena. When asked whether the country would take in more Aquariuses, Sánchez remarked, “We’re taking them in on a daily basis…They’re just not called the Aquarius and they’re little boats. It may not be as striking as a boat drifting in the Mediterranean, but it’s the reality of what we’re seeing on the coast of southern Spain on, sadly, a daily basis”.
And it’s true. Lesser-known episodes of the Aquarius saga unfold routinely along Spain’s southern coast. Hundreds of inflatable boats, inadequately fuelled and barely seaworthy, embark along the Strait of Gibraltar each month. “People traffickers know that the lifeguards are going to come for them”, says Spanish coast guard official Oriol Estrada, “The call to say that a certain boat has left such-and-such a coast at a certain time with however many people. They even give the names of those aboard”.
While the migration crisis has cooled across the bloc, it’s been set to boil in Spain. Mediterranean crossings dropped by more than half in 2018, but Spain saw its figures triple last year, with 22,000 people attempting the treacherous journey. In just one day last August, the Spanish Coast Guard rescued 593 people from 15 paddleboats, including 36 children. The number of drownings along the Western Mediterranean route has, reportedly, doubled.
While Spanish government officials say the hike in arrival numbers cannot be attributed to just one factor, tighter border controls and multilateral deals have constricted the Central and Eastern Mediterranean routes, prompting traffickers and asylum seekers to look West. June and July surges along the Spanish coast occurred in tandem with Italy’s new government shutting down its ports, and the Italian and Maltese government refusing safe harbour to rescue boats run by charities. At just eight nautical miles from the coast of Morocco – a destination country in and of itself for those fleeing violence and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa – asylum seekers see Spain’s shores as an alternative channel into Europe, and a means of escaping egregious human rights violations in Libya. Rescuers along the Moroccan route also increasingly report immigrants hailing from far off Asian nations, such as Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
Officials in Brussels have expressed concern about Spain becoming the new “flashpoint” for the crisis, and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees warns the country lacks “the resources and capacity to deal with the surge”.
Spain has adopted a lenient and liberal stance towards asylum seekers, which may create pull factors. At Sánchez’s first EU Council meeting in late June, he signed a trilateral migration deal with Greece and Germany in which Spain will accept returned asylum seekers from Germany whose “first entry into the European Union was Spain”. The Spanish government also expanded public healthcare to foreigners without residence permits and pledged to eliminate the razor wire on the border fences at Melilla and Ceuta, Spain’s two enclaves in Africa. Fernando Maura, the foreign policy spokesman of opposition party, Ciudadanos, has reservations about Spain’s new progressive stance: “When you send out a signal of this kind, it could well be received by those who want to come to Europe”.
Sánchez’s new stance on migration is partly corrective, following the six-and-a-half-year conservative regime of his conservative predecessor Mariano Rajoy. But with his party holding only 84 of 350 seats in Parliament, Sánchez’s liberal course is also an appeal to the leftist parties critical to him retaining power.
Unfortunately, neither the humanitarian response to the Aquarius nor the media fanfare is the norm. In Spain’s southernmost province of Cadiz, police stations and juvenile centres are overwhelmed, thus migrants are being housed in whatever buildings are available: vacant hostels, ferry terminals and even sports facilities. Pregnant women, newborns and unaccompanied minors sleep side-by-side on a repurposed basketball court while a Tarifa sports complex houses 600 people. Charities and aid organisations are providing food and shelter in Andalusia, which has already “reached a critical point that exceeds our infrastructure capacity”, says Samuel Linares, coordinator for the Spanish Red Cross.
Spain and Morocco are cooperating to curb illegal migration, with Moroccan authorities preventing smuggling across the Strait of Gibraltar and across the fences surrounding Ceuta and Melilla. The nations’ foreign and interior ministers convened in Rabat in late June following a two-week period where 2,000 migrants arrived by boat; the Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell dubbed the meeting “excellent.”
However warm the country is to its increasing number of guests, Spain’s humanitarian actions are inadequate to tackle a pan-European problem. Sánchez is eager to work toward an EU-wide policy and has allied himself with leaders from Greece, Germany, and particularly France. He visited Élysée Palace last month to discuss immigration with French President Emmanuel Macron, who offered French support during the Aquarius crisis. Sánchez insists “There cannot be a unilateral response. With the Aquarius we made a gesture of solidarity but a humanitarian crisis is one thing and migration policy another. And that migration policy must have a joint, European response”.