Spain feels the heat as migrants shift route into Europe

TARIFA, Spain (AP) — Askanda Fopa Ponye was jubilant as he stepped off an orange rescue ship onto Spanish soil, one of the latest arrivals amid a wave of migrants that has turned the shortest route from North Africa to Europe into the most popular one.

The 24-year-old Cameroonian survived a 9-month trip across the African continent and a 10-hour overnight ordeal on the Mediterranean Sea, paddling north from Morocco in a fragile inflatable boat that he bought along with seven other people.

Rescued at sea, he and 74 others finally disembarked in the southern city of Algeciras. Fopa Ponye carried nothing but his wet clothes, his determination to find a job in Barcelona and a message for European Union leaders who want stricter policies to curb the numbers of those seeking a better life in Europe.

“Migrants are not coming here to do bad things. I don’t come here looking for trouble,” Fopa Ponye said, speaking as the British outpost of Gibraltar and its famous Rock towered across a bay filled with luxury yachts.

The U.N. refugee agency says 17,781 people have made it to Spain so far this year, both by land and by sea, outpacing the arrivals by boat to Italy (16,452) or Greece (13,120).

The arrivals this year to Spain’s southern coast are already the highest for the past decade. Although far from the flows seen in Greece in 2015, and Italy over the following two years, they show how routes are shifting westward as policies are adjusted.

Of the 973 who lost their lives in the Mediterranean so far this year, nearly a third (293) died trying to reach Spain, the International Organization for Migration said. That figure does not include an estimated 100 migrants who were missing at sea and feared dead Friday off the Libyan coast when their smuggling boat sank.

Despite a sharp decline from 2015 peak levels of economic migrants and asylum-seekers arriving in Europe, the renewed popularity of the Western Mediterranean route is straining Spain’s security forces and social safety networks.

With police stations and juvenile facilities overflowing in Cadiz, Spain’s southernmost province, authorities are setting up makeshift housing in sports facilities, rented hostels or even ferry terminals.

On Tuesday, the day Fopa Ponye was rescued, the sports complex in Tarifa held more than 600 people, some who came all the way from Bangladesh or Sri Lanka. Women, some of them pregnant and others with newborns, slept on the floor of a basketball court, sharing it with dozens of unaccompanied teenagers.

By Wednesday, authorities stopped receiving more people in Tarifa, and a new facility had to be opened in the nearby coastal town of Barbate. There were moments of tension Thursday when dozens of Moroccans stormed an exit and managed to escape police.

Spain has bilateral agreements with Morocco, Algeria and other African countries to return their citizens, making it nearly impossible for any arrivals from there to get asylum. But most sub-Saharan Africans and others arriving in the country are given an expulsion order that authorities are rarely able to execute.

Most are released and continue north into France and beyond. Among those who stay — awaiting asylum and unable to work — a small number receive public assistance for up to two years. But many end up homeless or at the mercy of criminals. Local governments, especially in cities like Madrid or Barcelona, offer limited accommodations and assistance, relying frequently on charities.

Aid groups say the approach needs to be rethought. The early summer surge in arrivals is exposing Spain’s response as ill-equipped, underfunded and too reliant on improvisation.

The increase also comes as a divisive debate over migration has re-emerged in Europe. At an EU summit on Thursday and Friday in Brussels, the 28 leaders of the bloc agreed on several measures to better manage migration into Europe.

In 2006, offering funds and training to the coast guard and security forces in Senegal reduced a wave of nearly 32,000 arrivals in the Canary Islands.

But Spain’s approach also has been marred by an asylum system that has more than 43,000 unsolved petitions — last year only 4,670 people were granted protection — and controversial, on-the-spot returns of migrants caught entering the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla over a fence in North Africa.

The Rev. Josep Buades, a Jesuit priest who visits migrants weekly at some of the detention centers known as CIEs, said “Spain’s past experience should be seen as a showcase of the challenges that lie ahead for the European Union, rather than a path to success.”

The Associated Press was denied access this week to visit CIEs in Tarifa and Algeciras, the latter a former prison that Spain’s Ombudsman Office said should be closed due to poor conditions. Run by Spain’s police with little public supervision, these centers also seem to be models for similar facilities being proposed either on European soil or abroad.

Jose Villahoz, head of the local aid group Algeciras Acoge, said the EU shouldn’t be looking for ways to deprive migrants of their freedom.

“If the rights of the nationals of the transit countries are not even respected, it’s going to be even worse for those coming from sub-Saharan countries,” said Villahoz, adding it was “deplorable to make those countries in northern African responsible” for the migration flows into Europe.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has said he will look into how to improve the CIEs, but there are no plans to close them.

After winning praise earlier this month for taking in 629 migrants on the Aquarius rescue ship that Italy and Malta rejected, Spain’s new center-left government is under pressure to deliver an equivalent response to the migrant arrivals on the southern coast.

But the European debate feels far away in the EU’s “south of the south,” as Villahoz calls Spain’s neglected Andalusian coast. Instead, all eyes are on negotiations with Morocco, which many in Spain blame for opening or closing the valve of departures from its shores, ahead of talks with the EU on fishing, agricultural and other topics.

On Thursday, Sanchez sent Spain’s interior and foreign ministers to Morocco for meetings with their counterparts. Sanchez himself is planning a visit there this summer.

Khalid Zerouali, Morocco’s director of migration and border surveillance, said his country is under new pressure amid the clampdown on the sea migration route between Libya and Italy.

He also told the AP that Morocco isn’t interested in trying to determine which migrants are eligible for asylum in Europe. The plan to make such decisions in some African countries is being discussed by the EU as one way to tamp down arrival numbers.

“That’s not the solution,” Zerouali said, because people often use Morocco as a departure point for Spain, adding that about 25,000 migrants have been stopped this year.

Buades, the Catholic priest, says Europe should explore policies that favor legal migration while rethinking its overall asylum system and its treatment of arrivals. But that is difficult in the current climate, he added.

“The Europe that we live in has dived into a populist and xenophobic discourse that makes it nearly impossible to improve the current system,” Buades said.


Amira El Masaiti in Rabat, Morocco, contributed to this report.


This story has been corrected to give the priest’s first name as Josep, not Joan.