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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 November 2018

Spain's Algeciras overwhelmed by migrant arrivals

Mayor fears the city will become the 'new Lampedusa'

Migrants rest inside a rescue vessel at the port of Algeciras, southern Spain, after being rescued in the Strait of Gibraltar. AP
Migrants rest inside a rescue vessel at the port of Algeciras, southern Spain, after being rescued in the Strait of Gibraltar. AP

For holidaymakers and backpackers the journey between Morocco and Spain is an easy day trip. Dozens of boats cross the Gibraltar Straits daily, arriving after a 70 minute journey to Spain’s Algeciras port, where the passports of tourists are given a cursory glance.

But out of sight of the tourists, 600 migrants – the latest of a new wave of boat people entering Europe – are stuck at the same port. Authorities were unprepared for their arrival, and left them huddled on a Spanish coastguard ship for much of last week, sheltering in the shade of lifeboats or spilling into the sun on deck. By Sunday many were still aboard, awaiting processing.

Spain’s ability to deal with new migrant arrivals is strained as the Morocco to Spain route has become the hot passage to Europe. Amid a crackdown by Italian and Libyan authorities, Spain has overtaken Italy and Greece as Europe’s main entry point. About 23,000 migrants have arrived so far this year and more than 2,000 in the last week alone.

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The sudden surge comes at a time of political flux in Spain and Europe. In June, a socialist government ousted the conservative incumbents and has since struck a sympathetic tone towards arriving migrants.

The city of Algeciras faces the difficult task of processing and accommodating the new arrivals. An industrial city home to one of Europe’s largest ports, the skyline of Algeciras is dominated by cranes. Across the bay, the Rock of Gibraltar looms.

Algeceris
Algeceris

When the new interior minister Fernando Grande-Marlasko visited Algeciras last week, he played down claims that Spain and the city were unable to cope with the migrant influx. Everything, he said, was “absolutely under control”.

To the mayor of Algeciras, Jose Ignacio Landaluce, Mr Grande-Marlasko appeared oblivious to the pressure his city is under.

“It is very dangerous not to give value to a problem, and the migrant issue is very serious,” he told The National from his city hall office. “If someone is so brave as to go to sea and risk their life, this is something that shocks our souls and requires attention. To say it isn’t dangerous, or to deny or reject an obvious problem only makes it worse.”

A migrant the port of Algeciras after being rescued in the Strait of Gibraltar on Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018. AP
A migrant the port of Algeciras after being rescued in the Strait of Gibraltar on Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018. AP

The local government has hastily converted sports centres, police stations and industrial buildings into makeshift processing centres for arriving migrants. Extra police have been called in, and offers of help from charities gratefully accepted.

The city is doing all it can to help, the mayor said. “The town hall is spending a lot of money in order to clean where the migrants stay, create new places for them to sleep,” said Mr Landaluce.

Still, conditions are barely adequate.

“There is a lack of mattresses to sleep on, a lack of blankets, food is not very good and sometimes scarce,” said Andrés de la Pena, the Algeciras representative of the Andalusian NGO APDHA. “We’ve had to resort to the solidarity of citizens to fill the gaps.”

Mohamed, a 32-year-old from the Ivory Coast, has been in Algeciras for a week. Speaking on condition that his surname not be used, he said he was plucked from a inflatable boat in the Mediterranean Sea by the Spanish navy and then transferred to the Red Cross.

Now being housed by a Red Cross funded centre, Mohamed said he had lodged a political asylum application “for some of the things I said at home”.

Migrants rescued at sea wait to be transferred at the harbour of Algeciras on August 1, 2018. AFP
Migrants rescued at sea wait to be transferred at the harbour of Algeciras on August 1, 2018. AFP

From Algeciras, onward travel in Spain is straightforward. “All I need is a paper from the Red Cross and a stamp from the police,” said Mohamed.

And fearful of migrants remaining in Algeciras, city hall will help pay for travel. “We also give money on bus tickets because when the migrants are identified and let go, they ask to go to the north of Spain,” said the mayor.

Mr Landaluce is afraid Algeciras will become the “new Lampedusa”, a reference to the Italian island said by critics to now be “overrun” by migrants.

Mr Landaluce and leaders such as French president Emmanuel Macron have called for a “European solution” to the migrant crisis and the mayor said a collective approach, rather than unilateral moves by countries such as Italy, was required.

A migrant sleeps on board NGO Proactiva Open Arms rescue boat in central Mediterranean Sea, August 5, 2018. Reuters
A migrant sleeps on board NGO Proactiva Open Arms rescue boat in central Mediterranean Sea, August 5, 2018. Reuters

“The heart and the head is what we need. The heart because they are human beings and the head because we have to avoid the whole African continent coming to Spain or Europe," Mr Landaluce said. "The European solution must be to try to solve the problem at the root, to avoid hunger in Africa to stop them coming. Immigration is necessary for Europe, but it has to be controlled.”

Last Wednesday, following a plea by Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, it was reported the European Union would allocate tens of millions of euros in additional funding to Spain to help it deal with the influx of migrants.

Mr Landaluce has mixed feelings about the extra support from Brussels, saying his city could not be a dumping ground for Europe. “We don’t want suffering for people of the city or migrants ... Let’s look for a solution.”