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Is Spain Becoming Europe’s Next Gatekeeper?

More migrants are expected to pour into Europe this year, and a safer route along the western Mediterranean will force Spain to prepare for the arrival of thousands seeking new homes

The head of Frontex, European’s Border and Coast Guard Agency, has projected that the amount of migrants attempting to reach Europe in 2018 will remain high, particularly on the western Mediterranean route. The pan-European agency based in Warsaw, that coordinates member state border police patrols on the continent’s external frontiers, has warned Spain to prepare for increased arrivals at its borders.

Last year roughly 23,000 illegal migrants from mainly Algeria, Guinea, and Morocco arrived at Spain’s border, up from just over 10,000 the year before. While these figures pale in comparison to the more than 110,000 migrants that arrived in Italy the same year, and 180,000 the year before that, Spain’s numbers will almost certainly go up as Italy’s go down. This seesaw of migration inflows is a result of an unchanging status quo in many African nations, as the EU agency has confirmed that migrants from Africa are not slowing down their efforts to enter Europe.

Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni worked diligently over the last 12 months with the Libyan Navy and Coastguard to cut passage from Libya to Italy by more than one-third, and successfully reduce the number of deaths at sea from Libya to Italy by more than 50%. However, this seems to have only changed the routes taken to get to Europe, not the root causes.  “People are talking about going to Spain. It seems like it is safer to go through Morocco to Spain than through Libya,” said a 27-year old migrant from Gambia who was unable to reach Italy via Libya in 2017. “The difference is that Libya doesn’t have a president and Morocco does, there are not guns like in Libya.”

Political turmoil, which has created fertile ground for uncontrolled violence, is the biggest of the contributing factors that are pushing Africans out of their continent and on a perilous journey overseas. Frontex’s Chief, Fabrice Leggeri, said that while overall numbers into Europe have decreased since 2015, when 1.8 million people entered the continent, migrants are finding new ways to cross borders, and controlling forged documents is becoming increasingly difficult.


While Spain has seen a significant increase in migrants over the past 12 months, the numbers pale in comparison to the country’s peak year of 2006, when more than 36,000 migrants arrived at its borders. Copyright: Anjo Kan/Shutterstock.com

Leggeri also expressed concern that fewer unauthorised migrants were being sent back home. He noted that for Europe, “this will be a challenge”. Even so, he acknowledged that sending migrants back to war-torn countries like Libya “is not acceptable from a humanitarian perspective,” he admitted.  “I wouldn’t sign an operational plan saying that rescued migrants should be disembarked to Libya.”

Spain, for its part, recently called on the European Union to step up its actions in tackling the migration issue at its nucleus, migrants’ home countries. While working with Morocco to improve immigration matters, Spain’s Secretary of State for Security José Antonio Nieto urged the EU to focus more on supporting the developing countries from which migrants are fleeing, rather than offering financial support to European countries who are hosting them.

He commended Morocco for its efforts to help stem the increasing flow of Moroccans into Spain, and called on the EU to take responsibility for what is a Union-level issue. He also said he was in consistent contact with Frontex in an effort to realise a stable and “strategically well-ordered policy” to address the migration problem. “We want people to have hope for the development of their countries and not come here waiting for the European miracle and then end up in a critical situation,” he said.

“Spain believes to stop the illegal immigration, it is important to cooperate with and assist the countries the immigrants are coming from, and help develop them so citizens of those countries can have a decent standard of living and lose the need to have to risk their lives, spend all their savings and leave their families”.

Migration was the front-running issue at the 4th South EU Summit in Rome last month. Leaders from Italy, Greece, Malta, Cyprus, Portugal and France joined Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy for a working session to tackle the region’s biggest issues. “The European Union must help more to control the borders because we are in a territory where you cannot leave national states alone, because they are issues of enormous complexity,” said President Rajoy in a group press conference following the session.

While the country may be struggling to find the resources and infrastructure to handle what lies ahead, it is certainly rich in experience. Spanish foundation porCausa, who focuses on aiding Spain in its effort to manage migration, pointed out that this is not the country’s first time facing such an issue. “As a guarantor of the protection of the European Southwestern border, and as the border with Morocco and Africa, Spain has pioneered the implementation of the policies that are nowadays fostered by the EU and its Member States,” the organisation wrote in its report on the country’s migration control.  “Our country started to nurture the migration industry long before Europe started panicking with the refugee crisis, and it has done so with the complicity of governments across the ideological spectrum.”

If experience is any indication of what lies ahead, Spain will continue to keep its shores stable as troubled waters bring in a new wave of migrants.

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Mary Reed Davis

Mary is a writer focused on economics, energy resources, and international politics and serves as the managing editor of online content for the South EU Summit Magazine. She holds an MA in International Economics from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and worked in China for five years as a journalist before relocating to Europe. She currently lives in Italy with her husband.

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