Spain’s Sánchez welcomes migrants – with an eye on elections

Jorge Guerrero, AFP | The Red Cross helps a young girl arriving at Spain’s Algesiras port on July 21, 2018.
6 min

While most EU nations are tightening their migrant policies with an eye on their electorates, Spain’s new centre-left Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez is welcoming migrants – for exactly the same reason.


Spain has now become the main destination for migrants trying to reach Europe, replacing the Libyan-Italy Mediterranean route that was once the main migrant gateway to the continent.

In less than a week, nearly 2,000 migrants entered the country and since the beginning of the year, 22,858 people arrived in Spain by sea while 307 died attempting the crossing, according to IOM (International Organization for Migration) figures published on July 31, 2018. More migrants have arrived in Spain over the past seven months than in all of 2017. The country has now surpassed Italy and Greece as being the first entry point via the Mediterranean.

But Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s centre-left government has rejected the term ​​"mass immigration" that has fuelled the discourse in several European nations. "We’re trivialising the word ‘mass'," said Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell during a joint press conference earlier this week with his Jordanian counterpart, Ayman Safadi.

Borrell instead chose to highlight the need for “new blood” in a continent with an ageing population. "Europe's demographic evolution shows that unless we want to gradually turn into an ageing continent, we need new blood, and it doesn't look like this new blood is coming from our capacity to procreate," he noted.

In addition to the sea route, migrants are also attempting to reach Spain by land by crossing into the Spanish North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla.

Last week, 602 migrants managed to scramble over the double barrier between Morocco and Cueta throwing caustic quicklime, excrement and stones onto the police below.

While admitting the incident – which made headlines in Spain – “shocked public opinion”, Borrell insisted that it was all relative. “Six hundred people is not massive compared to 1.3 million” Syrian refugees currently in Jordan, he said.

A matter of domestic policy

Borrell’s comments were a confirmation of a different policy adopted by the Sanchez government. Since taking office in June, the new Spanish prime minister has been pursuing a migration policy that’s more respectful of human rights. In June, he accepted the Aquarius, a boat chartered by the aid groups SOS Méditerranée Sea and Doctors Without Borders, which had been sent back from the ports of Italy and Malta, with 629 migrants on board.

Madrid’s new policies are being hammered out with an eye on the upcoming local elections, followed by European parliamentary elections in May 2019, according to some experts.

"These left-leaning positions are directly linked to Spain's domestic politics,” explained Barbara Loyer, a Spain specialist at the University of Paris VIII. “The Socialist Party, at the head of a fragile coalition, is trying to seduce the voters of [the left-wing] Podemos and [centre-right] Ciudadanos – two new parties that have changed the equation. All of this is being done with a view to the forthcoming elections, and recent polls seem to show that this tactic is starting to pay off.”

Since 1998, the number of foreigners documented in Spain has increased tenfold, from 1.6 percent of the total population 20 years ago, to 12.2 percent in 2016, or 4.6 million people. But while populism is rising across Europe in countries like Hungary, Italy, Austria and Slovakia, Spain, for now, is not facing any such threat, according to Loyer. "The decision to host the Aquarius has been criticised by some Spanish media, but overall, the issue of immigration does not cause a national debate as elsewhere in Europe," she explains.

The far-right does not go far in Spain

In 2014, former members of the Spanish centre-right People's Party launched a new party, Vox, propagating the sort of hardline anti-immigrant, anti-EU positions familiar with far-right parties across Europe. But Vox has remained a marginal player in Spanish politics.

"The small far-right and anti-Islam parties have very little influence. There is no postcolonial issue in Spain with the Moroccans, as in France with the Algerians. There could be feverish outbreaks in some regions with a high proportions of immigrants, but we are not there yet,” noted Loyer.

By 2017, the number of Moroccans registered in Spain had reached more than 682,000 people, according to Loyer. But today rather than coming from Morocco, the majorty of migrants are mostly from Latin American countries – such as Venezuela and Colombia – and East European nations like Romania.

But, Loyer noted, if Morocco were to change its border policies, that could change the equation. "If Morocco decides to close its eyes, as it seems to have done recently in Ceuta, hundreds of people could arrive every day," she explained.

Morocco has been calling for EU aid that has not yet arrived and its government is strongly opposed to setting up "hotspots" – as envisaged by EU leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron – on its soil.

On the fence on a thorny issue

Human rights groups however are still cautious before evaluating the new government's migration policy. "While there have been a number of positive actions, our greatest concern is the government’s European policy. Pedro Sánchez wants to be the driving force behind a new European solidarity policy towards refugees. We should judge the results obtained," said Nuria Diaz, spokesperson of the Madrid-based NGO, CEAR (Comision Espanola de Ayuda al Refugiado). "The Spanish government will also be evaluated on its ability to receive migrants, and its cooperation with different organisations," she added.

Overwhelmed by the arrival of 2,000 migrants in less than a week, Spain has asked for €30 million in assistance from the EU’s Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF) and Internal Security Fund (ISF).

Another thorny issue is the law permitting Spanish border guards in Ceuta and Melilla to summarily return migrants to Morocco, a policy that has was condemned by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in October 2017.

The six-metre (20ft) high “anti-migrant” razor wire fences separating Ceuta and Melilla from Moroccan territory has been a contentious issue since “jumpers” attempting to scale the fences often wound themselves.

The controversial razor wire fences were first introduced in 2005, but removed two years later after a Senegalese national died attempting to scale the fence. In 2013, Spain’s conservative former Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s revived the fences after waves of migrants scaled them.

Months after the ECHR condemnation, Rajoy’s government appealed the ruling and the new Spanish government has so far not taken up the issue.

In June though, Spain’s new interior minister, Fernando Grande-Marlaska, told a Spanish radio station he was “going to do everything possible to see that these razor wire fences at Ceuta and Melilla are removed".

But that’s unlikely to happen during the summer break. "It is unclear whether the Spanish Socialist Party will renounce the [ECHR] appeal [launched by Rajoy], or whether it will remove the barbed wire fences of Ceuta and Melilla as it has recently announced. Everything will be clearer in September," said Loyer.

This article is a translation of the original, which appeared in French.

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