Is there really a 'migrant crisis' in Spain?

  • Lorenzo Gabrielli
  • 31 Aug 2018

Spain is allegedly at the front line of a massive wave of migrant arrivals from Africa. But is this really a crisis, or are Spain and Europe just victims of their own failed policies and a wave of xenophobia?

( Reuters )

17th June, 2018: after seven days at sea, the Aquarius with 630 people onboard was rescued between Libya and Italy, and arrives at the port of Valencia - following the denial to dock by the Italian government.

15th and 16th June, 2018: several boats with 986 people set off from the Moroccan coast arriving on the southern coast of Spain. In another similar case in mid July, 1000 people crossed by boat within the Strait of Gibraltar.

27th July, 2018: around 600 people jump barbed-wire fences that surround the autonomous Spanish city of Ceuta, on the northern coast of Africa.

Finally, on the 11th of August, the new Spanish PM, Pedro Sanchez, met his German counterpart, Angela Merkel, and they declared the need to find a common “European solution" to migration in Spain and that the current Dublin system, is not functional. 

This rapid succession of events suggests that Spain seems to have become, once again, a key destination for irregular migration in the Mediterranean. However, when one takes a deeper look at the current situation in Spain, looking both at migration flows and policies, we find a much more complex and ambiguous framework.

During the summer of 2018 there was an increase of migrants arriving at Spanish borders, but it's not as significant as we might be led to believe by the events I've listed above. Despite the high media visibility, the yearly growth for Spain can be important in percentage terms, but not as relevant in quantitative terms. 

A report by the IOM shows that, on the 18th of July 2018, the arrivals in Spain were higher than in Italy, but the general numbers of migrants and refugees arriving in Europe by sea are decreasing: 51,782 people, which is less than half of the 110,189 arrivals during the same period last year, and approximately a fifth of the 244,722 arrivals in 2016. 

Even the World Bank recognises in a recent report that what is growing is not migration or refugees, but xenophobia.

There are political reasons that explain the growth of migrant arrivals in Spain — mainly Italian actions driven by Interior Minister Matteo Salvini. 

For starters, Italy started criminalising NGOs rescuing migrant boats—based on suspected, but unproven, links with traffickers—and denying NGO vessels access to Italian ports. 

Italy has also sealed a deal with Fayez al Sarraji, PM of the Libyan GNA, in order to buffer migrants before they reach Italian waters. The cyclical changes in cooperation between Europe and other Mediterranean countries produces a displacement of regular migration paths. In this case, the shift seems to occur from the central Mediterranean route to Morocco, so that migrants can end up in Spain.

Italian policies—welcomed and supported by the EU as in the case of its cooperation with Libya—have reduced the number of arrivals to Italian shores, at the expens of massively rising levels of violence towards migrants, both in Libya and in the Mediterranean Sea. It also likely violates international rules on asylum (considering Libya as a ‘safe country’) and rescues at sea. 

The number of deaths in the Mediterranean Sea, as UNHCR remarks, has risen to 1,500 refugees and migrants since the beginning of 2018, with 850 deaths just in June and July, transforming the Mediterranean into "the deadliest sea route in the world”.

Amnesty International also underlines that Europe bears a strong responsibility on the rise of deaths in the Mediterranean and also for the increase of migrants detained in awful conditions in Libyan camps.

At first glance, Pedro Sanchez's policy approach to these arrivals appears very different from the xenophobic and disastrous policies of the Italian government. 

Since coming to power, the Sanchez government seems like it's trying change the inertia on migration policies in Europe with some very visible and symbolic decisions or declarations. 

The first took place in Valencia when the Spaniards allowed the arrival of the boat Aquarius, and then the NGO boat  Open Arms, which was rejected by Italy. It arrived in early August with 87 rescued people on board. 

Moreover, the new Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska announced important changes concerning border control practices in Ceuta and Melilla, banning the illegal pushback of migrants that cross fences and the planned dismantling of barbed-wire fences installed along the border. 

Real change or an eyewash?

The Spanish government's action seems then to stand as a bulwark against the strongly xenophobic tendencies that are taking over not just in Italy, but also more widely in the European political scene. 

Nevertheless, it's important to probe further. Just how deep and steadfast is this so-called alternative Spanish-German "European solution" to the existing populist and xenophobic European policies?

The winds of change in migration policies seems to be, for the moment, at least limited to visible and symbolic gestures. This is likely due to the influence and street power of right wing opposition parties, that weaponise the migration issue through fear-mongering populism to debilitate governments.

At the North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, illegal pushbacks continue, and the barbed-wire fences are still in place. Moreover, one of the first actions taken by Madrid after the recent growth of migrant arrivals during this summer was to sign an agreement with the EU Commission to allocate 55 million euros to secure Moroccan and Tunisian cooperation on controlling migrant flows to Europe.

Furthermore, when Sanchez and Merkel met, both leaders announced additional monetary efforts through the EU Trust Fund for Africa, to support Morocco in the tasks of border control. In this sense, it would also be useful to scrutinise if Morocco has played a role in the growth of arrivals to Spain, in a bid to put pressure on the new Spanish government so they can renegotiate monetary and political support.

The fact is that the foundational pillars of Spanish immigration policy remain the same as those developed in past decades: a greater emphasis on border control and cooperation—in particular with Morocco—to outsource control of migrant flows and to implement the readmission of migrants in irregular circumstances. An externalisation of policy, in essence.

As contemporary Europe faces the spread of xenophobic and deadly migration policies, these moderate signs of change coming from Madrid are not negligible, at least symbolically. However, considering the ravages that current migration policies are producing in the lives of migrants and refugees, these signals needs to be followed by a true and deep reassessment of the main pillars of European migration policies. 

Researchers, international organizations and NGOs have given stern warnings in recent years about violating international norms (like the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees), mistreatments of migrants and refugees, as well as the systematic violation of migrant rights in countries cooperating with the EU in the externalisation of migration control. 

Also, in strictly political terms, researchers have clearly underlined that the current European border and migration policies are not only useless but also counterproductive.

It is crucial in Europe to stop the alarmist framing of irregular migrant crossings as a ‘migration crisis’. It is not an unexpected event but a structural feature and it is constant over time and encompasses the entire Mediterranean. 

The migrant issue requires an imaginative and different political solution: establishing formal channels of labour migration and safe channels for refugees. 

It is urgent to change the nature of Europe's cooperation with non-European countries, to a partnership that is not solely based on buffering mobility outside of Europe at the expense of migrants' safety and rights, but rather cooperation based on prioritising the safety and rights of people.

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