The number of migrants arriving on Spain’s southern coast has more than doubled in 2017 compared to last year. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), since the start of 2017, 6,464 migrants crossed the Mediterranean to reach the country, while the total in 2016 was just over 8,000 migrants last year, making up only 2% of the total of so-called “irregular arrivals” to the EU.
The spike in arrivals means the crossing to Spain is now almost as popular as the one to Greece, which was the main entry point to Europe until the EU adopted a returns pact with Turkey.
The increasingly number of accidents occurred lately across the Alboran Sea, which connects northeastern Morocco and southeastern Spain, in the Western Mediterranean are clear evidence of the seriousness of the situation, which could potentially evolve into a new emergency for another European state. Just last week eight boats carrying 380 people were rescued. Only few days after an inflatable dinghy that had apparently set out from Morocco with 52 people aboard was flipped over after being hit by a strong wave. Only three survivors were rescued by the Spanish coastguard in what has been called by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) “the worst tragedy in the last decade in the Spanish Mediterranean” involving migrants.
Usually calm summer months are particularly popular for crossings the Alboran Sea, but its strong currents are perilous to small craft like dinghies, and a rogue wave or unexpected weather can make the journey a lethal one. As Mikel Araguas, from the Spanish branch of charity SOS Racisme declared: “We are worried because we are seeing numbers which we have not seen in years. And it’s a dangerous area, where the currents are very strong”.
In fact, even before this tragedy, 60 migrants are believed to have drowned in the Western Mediterranean this year. Andalucía human rights charity APDHA estimates that 6,000 people have drowned trying to cross that stretch of water since 1997.
The vast majority of migrants coming to Spain are sub-Saharan Africans fleeing poverty or conflict in their home countries. Many of those come from West African nations such as Guinea or Ivory Coast. A common route is by land through Mali and Algeria, and then on to Morocco, which at its nearest point is only eight nautical miles from the Spanish mainland. Internal factors within particular countries of origin can also encourage exoduses. For example recent social unrest in northern Morocco’s Rif region has triggered a new migratory tendency.
However, another reason is that word is getting out that the journey through Libya to reach Italian coasts is becoming more risky, with “ever harder controls”, said Helena Maleno Garzon of migrant aid agency Caminando Fronteras.
Many migrants passing through Libya, wracked by chaos since the 2011 toppling of dictator Muammar Gaddafi with rival militias and administrations seeking to control the oil-rich country, have reported dramatic tales of abuse in the country.
Migrants have reported being sold “on a slave market”, according to the IOM. Amnesty International has complained of migrants being tortured and jailed while the UNHCR has published reports by migrants of “appalling” conditions at Libya’s migrant detention centres. European authorities have also at long last begun to crack down on migrant smugglers in the country and aid workers say harder controls on making the crossing will force people further along the coastline. Adding to the appeal of this route is the fact that the sea crossing is shorter and it costs less. To capitalise on this people smugglers have slashed their prices for the Spain crossing by more than half, down from £1,770 per person last year to just £800 now, with tragic consequences. As a result, some migrants prefer to make their way to Morocco or Algeria and from there cross the Mediterranean to Spain, even though the Italian sea route from Libya remains the most popular for migrants. Italy has accepted around 85,000 of the 100,000 people who have arrived in Europe by sea this year according to the IOM.
The prospect of yet another major front opening up in the Mediterranean is a serious concern for European leaders who are struggling to respond to the unprecedented arrivals in Italy.
Rome has already warned that its reception centres are close to collapse whilst EU capitals bicker over the best way to help the country and bring down the numbers of arrivals in the future. In recent weeks some ministers have significantly toughened their tone, talking openly about sending boats back to North Africa and hugely upping deportations of economic migrants. However no solution appears to be either feasible or easy to apply in the immediate horizon.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights disclosed on Tuesday 11 July that it had “confirmed information” that Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been killed. The report comes just days after the Iraq army announced that it had recaptured the last sectors of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, which Baghdadi’s forces overran almost exactly three years ago.
On Tuesday, Rami Abdulahman, the director of the British-based war monitoring group, disclosed, “(we have) confirmed information from leaders, including one of the first rank who is Syrian, in the Islamic State in the eastern countryside of Deir al-Zor.” Abdulrahman further disclosed that activists working with him in Deir al-Zor had been told by IS sources that Baghdadi had died. They however did not state when or how. Sources also indicated that Baghdadi had been present in the astern countryside of Syria’s Deir al-Zor province in the past three months.
Officials in Iraq and in the US however have so far not confirmed the report. In Iraq, US Army Colonel Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the US-led coalition that is fighting IS, stated that he could not confirm the new, while the top US general in Iraq later stated that the coalition had no concrete information. Speaking at a news briefing, Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend disclosed, “despite all the helpful reports to us from every source imaginable, I’m unable to confirm or deny whether he is, or whether he is alive or dead. Let me just say for the record, my fervent hope is it is the latter.” Kurdish and Iraqi officials have so far not commented on the report. In the US, the Pentagon stated that it had no information to corroborate the reports. While Baghdadi’s death has been announced several times before, the Observatory has a record of credible reporting on the Syrian conflict. So far. IS-affiliated websites and social media feeds have not said anything.
In June, Russia’s Defense Ministry disclosed that it might have killed Baghdadi when one of its air strikes hit a gathering of IS commanders on the outskirts of the Syrian city of Raqqa. While at the time, Russian officials indicated that they were nearly 100% sure that Baghdadi was amongst those killed, authorities in Washington disclosed that they could not corroborate the death. Furthermore, Western and Iraqi officials remained sceptical.
What is clear is that the death of Baghdadi, who declared a caliphate governed by Islamic law from a mosque in Mosul in 2014, would be one of the biggest blows yet to the jihadist group, which is trying to defend rapidly shrinking territory in both Syria and Iraq.
The United States put up a US $25 million reward for his capture, the same amount as it had offered for al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden and his successor Ayman al-Zawahiri. It currently remains unknown if anyone will claim the bounty. IS leaders killed in Iraq and Syria since th US-led coalition began its air strikes include Abu Ali al-Anbar, Baghdadi’s deputy; IS’ “minister of war,” Abu Omar al-Shishani, who was a close military adviser to Baghdadi; and Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, one of the group’s most prominent and longest-serving leaders.
On 28 June, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced that European allies of NATO and Canada will increase their defense spending by 4.3 percent in 2017, effectively marking a cumulative US $46 billion increase since cuts stopped in 2014.
Speaking a day before NATO defense ministers are due to meet in Brussels to discuss greater security expenditure, which US President Donald Trump is pushing for, Stoltenberg disclosed, “to keep our nations safe, we need to keep working to increase defense spending and fairer burden-sharing across our alliance.” Speaking at a news conference, he stated, “after years of decline, in 2015 we saw a real increase in defense spending across European allies and Canada…this year, we foresee an even greater real increase of 4.3 percent.”
Officials are reporting that thousands of people who fled to Canada in a bid to escape US President Donald Trump’s crackdown on illegal migrants have now become trapped in legal limbo because of an overburdened refuge system, struggling to find work, permanent housing or enrol their children in schools.
According to previously unpublished Immigration and Refugee Board data, refugee claims are now taking longer to be completed than at any time in the past five years, with a report indicating that those wait times are set to grow longer after the IRB in April allocated “up to half” of its 127 tribunal members to focus on old cases. The number of delayed hearings more than doubled from 2015 to 2016, and is now on track to increase again this year. Such hearings are critical to establishing a claimant’s legal status in Canada. Without the status, they will struggle to convince employees to hire them or landlords to rent to them. Claimants also cannot access loans or student financial aid, or update academic or professional credentials in order to meet Canadian standards.
Officials have indicated that Canada’s refuge system was already struggling to process thousands of applications even before 3,500 asylum seekers began crossing the US border on foot in January. The IRB has disclosed that it lacks the manpower to complete security screenings for claimants and hear cases in a timely manner, adding that often there are not enough tribunal members to decide cases or interpreters to attend hearings. According to IRB data, more than 4,500 hearings that were scheduled in the first four months of this year were cancelled. The government is now focused on clearing a backlog of about 24,000 claimants, including people who filed claims in 2012 or earlier. This effectively means that more than 15,000 people who have filed claims so far this year, including the new arrivals from the US, will have to wait even longer in order for their cases to be heard. Asylum cases are already taking longer to finalize, on average, than at any time since Canada introduced a statutory two-month limit in 2012. This year, it has been taking on average 5.6 months for asylum cases to be finalized, compared to 3.6 months in 2012.
In a bid to try to speed cases through, Canada’s refugee tribunal has put people from certain war-torn countries, such as Yemen and Syria, on an expedited track ,which requires no hearings. Scott Bardsley, spokesman for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, who oversees the Canada Border Services Agency, disclosed that borders agents are working overtime in a bid to address the backlog in security screenings.
According to government statistics, this year is on track to be the highest year for refugee claims since at least 2011. The stresses on the Canadian system mirror those of other countries with an open door policy. In Sweden, rising financial strains involved in resettlement were partly behind a move to introduce tough new asylum laws.
If Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is confirmed dead, as Russia has already indicated that it is nearly 100 percent sure that he was killed in an air strike in May, he is likely to be succeeded by one of his top two lieutenants, both of whom were Iraqi army officers under late dictator Saddam Hussein.
In late June, Russia’s defense ministry announced that Baghdadi may have been killed in an airstrike in Syria. On 23 June, Interfax news agency quoted a senior Russian parliamentarian as stating that the likelihood that he had been killed was close to 100 percent. Armed groups fighting in the region and many regional officials however are sceptical about the reports. US Army Colonel Ryan Dillom, spokesman for the international coalition that is battling IS, told a Pentagon briefing that “we don’t have any concrete evidence on whether or not he’s dead either.”
While experts on Islamist groups have indicated that they see no clear successor, they do regard Iyad al-Obaidi and Ayad al-Jumaili as the leading contenders. While Baghdadi awarded himself the title of caliph – the chief of Muslim civil and religious ruler, regarded as the successor of the Prophet Mohammad – in 2014, Obaidi or Jumaili would be unlikely to become caliph as they lack religious standing and IS has lost much of its territory. Obaidi, who is in his 50s, has been serving as war minister, while Jumaili, in his late 40s, is head of the group’s Amniya security agency. In April, Iraqi state TV reported that Jumaili had been killed, this however has not been confirmed. Both men joined the Sunni Salafist insurgency in Iraq in 2003, following the US-led invasion. Both men have been Baghdadi’s top aides since air strikes in 2016 killed his then deputy Abu Ali al-Anbari, his Chechen war minister Abu Omar al-Shishani and his Syrian chief propagandist, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani. According to Hisham al-Hashimi, who advises several Middle Eastern governments on IS affairs, “Jumaili recognizes Obaidi as his senior but there is no clear successor and, depending on conditions, it can be either of the two (who succeeds Baghdadi).”
Furthermore the appointment of a new IS leader would require the approval of an eight-member shoura council, an advisory body to the caliph. Its members however would be unlikely to meet for security reasons and they would make their opinion known through couriers. Six members of the council are Iraqis, one Jordanian and one Saudi, and all are veterans of the Sunni Salafist insurgency. A ninth member, the group’s Bahraini chief cleric, Turki al-Bin’ali, was killed in an air strike in Syria on 31 May. Two US intelligence officials in Washington have disclosed that they believed that IS had moved most of its leaders to al-Maydin in Syria’s Euphrates Valley, southeast of the group’s besieged capital there, Raqqa. They disclosed that amongst the operations moved to al-Maydin, which is located about 80 km (50 miles) west of the Iraqi border, were its online propaganda operation and its limited command and control of attacks in Europe and elsewhere.