Separating the destinies of Abdoul, a 16-year-old from Sierra Leone, and Moroccan Yassin Esadik, 23, is an abyss of two-and-a-half years. The former disembarked from the Aquarius rescue ship in Valencia in June, 2018. The red-carpet treatment rolled out in the port meant there were 600 journalists on site, humanitarian aid and a coordinated administration focused on accelerating the procedures to process the migrants’ arrival.
Two-and-a-half years later, at the end of October, Esadik arrived in the overcrowded Arguineguín dock in Gran Canaria, where migrant arrivals had been accumulating for 20 days. Sandwiches were handed out for breakfast, lunch and dinner, there was a lack of water and hygiene, journalists were kept behind a barrier and an overwhelmed system meant that he was unlikely to be able to leave the island until he was deported. It’s not just time that separates the fate of these two young men; nor is it exactly an ideological shift. It is realpolitik.
In the case of Abdoul, a then-unknown humanitarian rescue ship gave Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez the opportunity to declare his intentions to the European Union as soon as he took power in June 2018. The Aquarius was the first ship to become embroiled in a humanitarian crisis due to the closed port strategy of the Italian interior minister at the time, Matteo Salvini. While Europe looked the other way, the vessel was left in limbo for eight days. Implicit in Sánchez’s gesture was the message that Spain could lead the approach of Europe’s southern states to migration, could manage the flows and control borders while respecting human rights. But reality soon chewed up that message and spat it out.
Another incident involving a ship that has long been forgotten showed how quickly Spain ditched this role. In late November 2018, the Alicante fishing boat Nuestra Madre Loreto was left in limbo for 10 days after rescuing 12 migrants off the coast of Libya. Once again, neither Italy nor Malta allowed it to dock, and Sanchez’s government, in contrast with its previous message, tried to resolve the crisis by forcing the ship to leave the migrants in what it considered the closest and safest port – Libya, a chaotic country, according to migration experts, where migrants are extorted and abused. The captain of Nuestra Madre Loreto, Pascual Durá, refused and set sail for the Spanish coast. The crisis was only resolved at the last minute when Malta allowed the boat to dock on the condition that the migrants were subsequently taken to Spain.
Since that incident, there has been a U-turn in Spain’s migration politics. The vast majority of the Aquarius migrants plus those rescued by the Catalan NGO ship Proactiva Open Arms arriving in Spain in 2018 have had their request for legal residency rejected; Spanish rescue boats have been forbidden to trawl the central Mediterranean and the Maritime Rescue service has also had its hands tied. For the time being, the coalition government has agreed not to stop immediate deportation, and the enclosure in Ceuta and Melilla is being maintained and is now being tried in the Canary Islands.
“Spanish migration strategy is more stable than it seems,” says Gemma Pinyol, director of the Instrategies think tank. “There are some changes in the narrative depending on who is in power, but the border control policies, which are the ones that continue to be imposed, haven’t changed that much. We need to take a good look and promote serious debate on migration. We can discuss which model is better or worse, but we must seek a comprehensive mobility policy.”
While Spain has been spared Europe’s migratory crises until recently, over the past two and a half years it has been left to face unprecedented situations practically alone. In 2018, irregular entries rocketed by more than 64,000 and, a year later, the number of asylum applications rose to 118,000, collapsing an already precarious system. Now, in the midst of the pandemic, the Canary Islands is bearing the brunt of the situation, leading to migrant macro-camps such as were set up in the Greek islands.
Thanks to the European Union and its interior ministers, the chance of Spain leading a migration approach of its own has dwindled. “From the Pyrenees down, Europe only cares about two words: secondary migrations,” says a member of the current administration, referring to the obsession with stopping the transit of migrants to the rest of Europe through Mediterranean countries.
In fact it is the demands of European countries to the north and east of the continent that have done much to curb Spain’s early initiative. “There has been a total rejection of what was originally proposed and a lack of leadership,” says a spokesman involved in national immigration policy. “There was a positive, serious, orderly approach; obviously not perfect, but, on paper at least, the line on immigration policy was clear. In practice, it turns out to be something else; you do what [Spain’s interior minister] Fernando Grande-Marlaska says.”
The new migration agreement currently being negotiated in Brussels rules out a solidarity-based distribution of immigrants and instead focuses on border controls, putting aside the debate on legal migration models and an adequate response to the demographic needs of an aging continent. “In Europe, the view of immigration is strictly about limiting and repressing it,” says political scientist Sami Naïr. “There is no prospective concept of what could be a great Mediterranean policy between the two shores, nor a true policy of cooperation. I have been advocating for years that limitation is necessary, but it has to run alongside proposals that offer stability to the populations of the countries of origin.”
Meanwhile, Spain still harbors a certain transformative impulse inspired by Minister of Inclusion, Social Security and Migration José Luis Escrivá, who advocates attracting foreigners to the labor market legally as a way to save the welfare state and mitigate Spain’s the demographic decline. Escrivá is committed to making procedures more flexible, attracting talent and facilitating the inclusion of foreign minors. But the minister is more or less on his own and the impact of these initiatives is slight within the context of the great immigration conundrum. Now, the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, which has triggered unemployment, complicates policy further. Once again, it is realpolitik.
English version by Heather Galloway.