Thursday

24th Jun 2021

Opinion

What you don't hear about Spain's migration policy

  • Morocco is a far cry from Libya. But Spain's cooperation on migration with the former still warrants closer scrutiny (Photo: Valentina Pop)

Morocco is a far cry from Libya. But Spain's cooperation on migration with the former still warrants closer scrutiny.

Compared to the migration routes between Turkey and Greece, or Libya and Italy, Spain's migration policy gets relatively little attention. This is a mistake: the western Mediterranean route is far from problem-free.

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  • Ceuta. Morocco claims to have stopped over 70,000 people from crossing into Spain last year. It does so, in part, by conducting regular raids against sub-Saharan migrants in camps near Ceuta and Melilla (Photo: EUobserver)

The EU's partnership with the Libyan Coast Guard is its most contentious one yet. Migrants have been 'pulled back' to Libya without the opportunity to request asylum. EU funds have been linked to abuses by local authorities. Meanwhile, shrinking space for search and rescue (SAR) has made the route more dangerous.

Worryingly, similar patterns are emerging in the western Mediterranean. Spain's growing cooperation with Morocco, generously backed by EU funds, has led to a 50 percent drop in the number of irregular arrivals into the country last year.

But this has come at a cost. True, Morocco is a far cry from Libya. As a partner, it is more stable and reliable, and its human rights abuses are neither as grave nor as systematic. However, the shared challenges and trends should not be ignored, as they risk becoming more pervasive in the future.

First, Spain has been conducting regular pushbacks of migrants across the border to Morocco, without due process.

Two cases have already been reported in 2020, including one involving 42 people who had landed on the Spanish Chafarinas islands. Most of them were women or children. The Spanish government has claimed that the migrants were intercepted in Moroccan waters rather than Spanish territory. Evidence collected by NGOs suggests the contrary.

Spain's summary return policy denies people the right to request asylum and violates international law.

Despite condemnations by UN bodies and the European Court of Human Rights, they happen systematically. Official figures state that over 650 people were pushed back in 2018, with many similar reports in 2019.

Second, in Morocco, border control practices are making migrants less safe.

Morocco claims to have stopped over 70,000 people from crossing into Spain last year. It does so, in part, by conducting regular raids against sub-Saharan migrants in camps near Ceuta and Melilla.

These raids have become more frequent and increasingly violent, leading to at least one recent reported death. In earlier incidents, the Moroccan navy has shot at people attempting to sail to Spain, killing a young Moroccan woman.

As with Libya, the argument that Morocco is a safe country and a reliable recipient of EU funding is becoming harder to uphold.

Third, Spain is quietly undermining SAR efforts. Whereas Italy systematically targeted NGOs conducting SAR missions, these play a smaller role in the western Mediterranean.

Rather, Spain has a state-led SAR mission, Salvamento Marítimo. In 2019, the agency was gradually stripped of staff, working equipment and resources, especially in the areas with the most crossings.

It also all but stopped operating in the Moroccan SAR area, where it had made a third of its rescues in 2018. Instead, the Moroccan coast guard has assumed a much larger role.

This reliance on Moroccan SAR efforts is irresponsible. Moroccan authorities are poorly funded, have longer delays in responding to ships in distress, and regularly end searches for survivors earlier.

Migrants are also taking more dangerous routes to avoid interception. Arrivals through the notoriously deadly route to the Canary Islands doubled in 2019 and continue to multiply. This puts lives at risk.

A turning point for Spain?

Until now, the Spanish government has benefited from the absence of international scrutiny over its migration management. That can't last forever. Spain's new government, a left-leaning coalition between PSOE and Podemos, has just been sworn in.

However, it takes office at a time when the far-right party Vox, which campaigned on an anti-immigration platform, has its largest ever presence in parliament. That makes 2020 a decisive year for the country's approach to migration.

Spain needs more scrutiny, and encouragement, to steer away from the central Mediterranean path.

To begin with, the EU must compel Spain to abandon its pushbacks policy.

A ruling by the ECHR on Thursday (13 February) (following an appeal) is expected to, again, condemn the practice. Spain has no excuse not to comply.

Second, Spain and the EU need to build greater accountability and human rights conditions into their migration partnerships across the board. EU funds should never facilitate abuses, either in Libya or Morocco.

Third, a cross-Mediterranean solution for SAR is urgently needed, with accompanying solidarity measures to support states at the border.

The EU can ill afford for its now-infamous cooperation with Libya to be replicated in the western Mediterranean: the resulting human rights violations have raised unprecedented criticism about Europe's approach to border management.

If Libya is not to become the blueprint for future cooperation on migration in the region, the EU should recognise the risks in the partnership with Morocco and address them now.

Author bio

Olivia Sundberg Diez is a policy analyst on migration at the European Policy Centre.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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