MS Risk Blog

Migration Emergency: Along With Italy, Spain Could be Next

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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.