Migrants in Madrid forced to sleep on the street to request asylum

Limits on daily applications mean pregnant women, families and sick people are braving long, cold nights in line just to start the process

Fernando Peinado
Migrants sleep on the street outside the immigration office.
Migrants sleep on the street outside the immigration office.VICTOR SAINZ

They arrive in Spain and spend their first days sleeping on the street outside a police station in Madrid, victims of a bureaucratic process they say is “inhumane.”

To request asylum all they need is one document indicating that the process has begun and which protects them from being deported. But due to a recent legal change, this document can only be requested in person at the Aluche National Police station, and only the first 99 people waiting in line are allowed in each day.

We can’t even go to get food because we lose our place

Luis, migrant from Honduras

Desperate to make it in, pregnant women, mothers with children, and people sick with cancer and asthma waited in line on Tuesday night on the sidewalk of Avenida de los Poblados, in the south of Madrid. By 10pm there were already 200 cold and scared migrants lined up, hoping they would be the first through the door at 9am on Wednesday.

They use cardboard and blankets to keep warm as the temperature at this time of the year can drop below 10ºC. Those who don’t make it in the next morning continue to wait in line with the hope of being seen in the next days. Those who leave the line to wash or eat lose their place.

The feeling on the line is one of resignation. “As a migrant, you know you are not going to arrive in the best conditions or be treated in the best way,” said Anielka Bustamante, a 32-year-old Nicaraguan woman who was waiting with her children, an eight-year-old and a three-year-old.

Anielka Bustamante waits in line with her two children.
Anielka Bustamante waits in line with her two children.VICTOR SAINZ

She slept in the line all of Tuesday night and did not make the cut, but said she was willing to wait all day on the sidewalk in order to get through on Thursday. The family has been in Spain a week and half of that time has been spent waiting in line.

The document they are waiting for is called the “statement of intent to apply for international protection.” Up until May, immigrants could request an appointment to collect the document over the phone, but the Interior Ministry has changed the process and migrants must now go in person through the Aluche police station.

A spokesperson for the Interior Ministry told EL PAÍS that they were not aware of the “disfunction” in Aluche. “We are going to evaluate how we can solve the situation respecting the right that every person has to request asylum,” the spokesperson said. The May reform coincided with a sharp increase in the number of asylum applications in Spain. According to data from Eurostat, this figure jumped 85% in the second quarter of this year to 16,200 requests. Since the beginning of the year, more than 40,000 people have asked for asylum.

Some migrants travel to other provinces where there is no daily limit on the number of people who can request the document, says Salvador Pimentel, a human rights lawyer who works with the Spanish League for Human Rights. “This is more humane, not like waiting outdoors in rain, hail or shine,” he says.

“We are human beings, not animals”

Some people waiting in line approached this EL PAÍS journalist and asked for help, desperate to put an end to their bureaucratic nightmare. “You can’t do anything?” asked Susi Vilca from Peru, who is pregnant and waiting with her three children, aged 14, 12 and four. In the morning, after failing to make it through, the four ate from a can of tuna with a plastic fork.

Others expressed disappointment with the process. “I leave behind all the shit of Venezuela and I find myself here,” complained 24-year-old José Figueredo, who came to Spain after abandoning his journalism studies in Caracas to escape the political and social crisis in his country.

We thought Spain was a country with laws but this is like Venezuela

Ydania Silva, migrant from Venezuela

The migrants say that there are people who jump the line and dozens of others who sell their spots for €200. They don’t understand why the police do not assign numbers to them.

“We are human beings, not animals,” says Luis from Honduras. “We can’t even go to get food because we lose our place.” The closest place to eat is more than half a kilometer away near the Aluche train station, where there is a Carrefour Express and gas station.

Migrants wait in line outside the Aluche police station.
Migrants wait in line outside the Aluche police station.VICTOR SAINZ

At 1am on Wednesday, for the first time five police officers left the building to hand out 80 numbers, say witnesses. The rest, more than a hundred of them, remained at the door, willing to wait until the next day to be seen.

“We thought Spain was a country with laws, but this is like Venezuela: waiting in line, people selling their places,” said Ydania Silva, who was accompanied by her husband Luis García. The two arrived in Spain at the beginning of the week. They paid for a hotel in Pinto until Thursday but have spent the past two nights in line. According to many of the migrants, the police have intimidated them, warning them that “they are in no position to take any risks.”

A year-long process

Many migrants don’t expect to be granted asylum. Only one in three requests are approved, a problem that has been denounced by human rights groups. But requesting asylum protects them from being deported and gives them the right to work temporarily, explains Pimentel.

Getting the document that says the asylum process has begun is simple. The first people in the line leave the building after a few minutes, holding a file with their photo, personal details and date for their next appointment in January. The documents says it “guarantees the holder will not be deported until its expiration date.”

Some sell their place in the line for €200

The actual asylum process is much longer. Asylum seekers must first receive a “red card” with their identification and then authorization to work, the appointment for which can be requested online. The waiting period to complete this process is more than a year, according to immigration lawyers.

The rise in asylum requests comes as shelters run by Madrid are failing to cope with the rising number of migrant arrivals, according to people who work helping the homeless. On Wednesday, an ambulance took a woman and two children to one of the city’s shelters. One of the migrants in line, Venezuelan Mariel Pacheco, says she needs the “red card” to receive treatment for her cancer. The health system in her country has collapsed. “Last night an ambulance came and I told them about my case but they said they couldn’t do anything, that it was out of their hands.”

“This is shameful,” says Christian Sanguino from Venezuela. “The ministry should not let people stay out in the cold and become targets for anything.”

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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