In Spain’s South, Centers Struggle to Manage Rising Number of Migrants

MALAGA, Spain — Standing alongside a metal fence dividing this city’s bustling port, Francisco Guerrero notices green mesh draped over the barrier.

“This mesh wasn’t here before,” he says as he positions his camera through one of the holes in it. Guerrero is photographing activity on the other side of the fence — the offloading of about 60 migrants rescued from overcrowded dinghies in the Mediterranean Sea earlier that day by Spanish maritime officials.

Guerrero is documenting the activity for the Association for Human Rights of Andalusia, a nonprofit organization comprised of volunteers, most of whom are attorneys. Activists for the group report rights violations across a number of areas, such as employment and, notably, migration.

For years people from Africa and the Middle East have migrated to Spain, fleeing conflict and poverty. This year the number of arrivals has reached a record: By early October, Spain had received 44,365 migrants, surpassing the previous record of nearly 40,000 in 2006. More than 43 percent of all migrant arrivals in Europe now occur in Spain, reflecting the uptick in the country and decrease across the rest of the continent.

The spike of migrant arrivals has been especially sharp since May, with monthly figures sometimes more than tripling the numbers from the same months in 2017. This past September, for example, 8,054 migrants reached Spain’s shores, compared to 1,486 in September of last year, according to the International Organization for Migration.

The surge is stirring debate in Malaga, one of the country’s main ports of entry, and across Spain on how best to care for the migrants. Some say that cities along the southern coasts are not prepared for such a surge. Centers run by nonprofit organizations and local municipalities in the region are overcrowded, forcing some migrants to be sent to centers in other parts of Spain.

“Do you know how they (Spanish officials) receive migrants at Malaga’s port?” Guerrero asks. “It’s a collapsible tent from the Red Cross, like the kind that people put up at the beach. They set up temporary camps as if this were something extraordinary, or unexpected.”

Spain doesn’t have the infrastructure in place to adequately manage this year’s increase of arrivals, says Raúl Jimenez, the Malaga mayor’s adviser on social rights. He adds that city officials are doing what they can, and are asking for more funds and resources from Madrid.

Jimenez adds that European Union officials could have better anticipated the migratory shift to Spain by pouring money into resources to care for the migrants.

The solution isn’t to set up more centers, Jimenez says. Rather, it’s to invest in humanitarian aid in African countries and provide more economic opportunities for people living there.

But Lorenzo Gabrielli, an immigration researcher at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University, says humanitarian aid organizations in African countries often misuse funds. A better answer, he says, is to provide a safe and legal channel for people from African countries to migrate to Europe.

“(Irregular crossings) have always been the main form of entrance because there are practically no alternatives.”

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Migratory routes are constantly in flux and can be difficult to understand because they’re not “completely mechanical,” Gabrielli says. It’s possible that Italy closing off its ports to NGO vessels carrying migrants contributed to the increase of arrivals in Spain, he says, but irregular crossings from the Mediterranean Sea have been going on for decades. Gabrielli adds that policymakers in Spain need to realize that migration won’t stop any time soon.

Political leaders, he says, need to “switch from this ‘crisis’-based narrative. It’s not a crisis; (migration) is just a normal human and social phenomenon.”

Earlier this year, world leaders praised the new Spanish government for accepting several rescue vessels that Italy and Malta turned away. But as summer drew to a close, the Spanish government shifted its approach to immigration, announcing in early August would stop handing out temporary residency permits to migrants coming in on rescue vessels. Later that month the government sent back to Morocco 116 migrants that crossed into a Spanish enclave in North Africa without having them go through deportation proceedings.

Spain, with the support of the EU, has also been negotiating with Morocco to help stem the flow of migration — essentially, to prevent migrants from crossing. The European Commission increased funding for the North African country this summer, and is considering another increase this fall.

Many activists say the increased funding has only resulted in Moroccan authorities raiding migrant camps in northern Morocco before they cross either the Mediterranean Sea or into two Spanish enclaves in North Africa. In September, the rights group Amnesty International criticized what it claimed was the illegal practice by Morocco of moving migrants, refugees and asylum seekers to remote areas near its border with Algeria.

Back in Spain, a few days after the arrival of 60 migrants in Malaga’s port, Guerrero stood across the street from a temporary detention center on the outskirts of the city. With camera in hand, Guerrero took photos of police officers guarding the main entrance of the center, a place Spanish officials identify the migrants.

Guerrero says he was up until 4 a.m. the night before, following the arrival of two boats.

“We haven’t seen this many arrivals in a while,” he says. “(The Association for Human Rights of Andalusia)] shouldn’t have to cover what the government isn’t covering; they should be doing it themselves. Our primary role is to be witnesses to what’s going on.”

Guerrero says the issue of immigration is made invisible to Spanish citizens — most people go about their day without noticing the centers down the street from their homes. But he also adds that the issue is being “sensationalized” by politicians who want to paint a picture of “sub-Saharan African people taking over our country.”

“It’s very easy to instill fear in people, and (politicians) end up creating a fear about something that isn’t real.”

Later that night, five migrants died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea; the wind picked up and made waters choppier than usual. Spain’s maritime rescue workers arrived after the migrants’ boat collapsed, but managed to pull 30 survivors out of the water.

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