In 2018, Spain became the main entry point for migrants coming to Europe | Photo: Picture-alliance
In 2018, Spain became the main entry point for migrants coming to Europe | Photo: Picture-alliance

Statistics and current affairs clearly indicate that Spain has somehow avoided the populist, anti-migrant wave which has swept most of Europe. But are the country's policies really 'refugee-friendly' and will the arrival of a record number of migrants affect them?

Over a million refugees and migrants arrived in the European Union during 2015. Initially, western European states welcomed the people fleeing war and persecution and scenes of German volunteers lining up along their border with Austria captured the world’s attention. Search and rescue operations were launched in the Mediterranean to save lives. 

However, Europe’s political and social landscape has dramatically changed since then. Stemming migration has become a key matter across the bloc and polarisation within the member states is threatening the very idea of a united Europe. Populist, far-right parties are in power in Austria, Hungary and Italy and pose a fairly significant threat to establishment parties in France and Germany. Victor Orban and Sebastian Kurz

One country has stood out as an exception to the changing mood in Europe - Spain. It has the reputation of being the 'most friendly' European state for refugees, but it that really the case? 

Over 60,000 arrivals recorded in Spain last year

According to UNHCR, a total of 119,575 refugees and migrants arrived via land and sea routes in Europe during 2018. The country that recorded the highest number of arrivals last year was Spain with 62,479 (over 50 percent). This was a significant spike in arrivals in Spain which stood at 28,349 in 2017 (roughly 17 percent of arrivals to Europe via land and sea routes overall) and 14,603 in 2016 (roughly 4 percent of arrivals overall).

Roughly 21 percent of the refugees and migrants who arrived in Spain during 2018 were from Morocco. Migrants from Guinea were 20.8 percent of the total arrivals while Malians were the third biggest group. The vast majority, 77.5 percent of the refugees and migrants who reached Spanish shores were men. Women were 10.9 percent and children 11.7 percent of the total.

Also read: Spain has most migrant arrivals in Europe, Greece surpasses Italy

The number of migrants and refugees arriving in Spain spiked as a result of stricter border controls and policies being pursued in most of Europe. The year 2017 ended with Italy being the biggest recipient. Since then, controversial deals with Libya to curb the migrant flow, followed by stringent policies by the center-right coalition in Rome, have lead to arrivals dropping significantly via the central Mediterranean route. Thus in 2018, the western Mediterranean route became the most preferred one.The Aquarius was chartered in 2016 by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors without Borders for search and rescue missions

‘Madrid also following closed doors policy’

Spain has taken pride in welcoming migrants to the country. In June 2018, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez shocked many European leaders when he offered a safe port to 630 migrants aboard the Aquarius rescue ship, which Italy had rejected. He said, "It is our duty to help avoid a humanitarian catastrophe and offer a safe port to these people, to comply with our human rights obligations."

On a closer look, however, Spain's policies have not effectively added up to what Sanchez had promised.

Barcelona based journalist Christina Mas says that the problem with Sanchez’s bold step was that it was merely a gesture. Speaking to InfoMigrants, she said, "The current Spanish government is following the same closed doors’ policy as the rest of the European countries."

Mas pointed out that a few months after taking office, the same government refused entry to a Spanish ship which had rescued some migrants. She was referring to the incident which occurred late November in which a Spanish fishing vessel was stranded in the Mediterranean for days as no country agreed to accept the 12 rescued migrants who were on board.

Christina Mas journalist in Barcelona  Photo Aasim Saleem

Walls, militarization of land borders

"The militarization of the land border is pushing more people to the sea," Mas added. The increase in land arrivals in Spain is up 10 percent as compared to last year, but the increase in sea arrivals is 159 percent more as compared to 2017. 

Ramon Nikolaus from the ‘apip-acam Foundation’ - an NGO which has branches across Spain, told InfoMigrants that autonomous communities across Spain want to welcome refugees, but the decision lies with the central government. "Neither the previous government nor the current one have been pursuing policies to help people coming from conflict zones and to provide them with adequate facilities," he added.

Abdellatif El Bekkari from Accem - a non-profit organization that provides counseling and reception to refugees and immigrants in Spain said that Spain’s policies lie somewhere in-between. Bekkari told InfoMigrants, "Some European states are doing nothing while some have more initiatives for the refugees as compared to Spain." He added, "I believe that if you look at the comparative situation, Spain is not doing too bad. The central government has several initiatives for documented migrants and refugees."

Moroccan migrant who lives in a house for undocumented immigrants near Almera Spain  Photo Ismail Azzam

Is Europe’s populist wave making its way in Spain?

A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in September last year found Spain to be the most supportive European country for refugees, with 86 percent of adults in favor of taking in people fleeing violence and war.

But at the same time, Spain has an exceptionally high level of unemployment at 15.2 percent - the second-highest in Europe. According to a recent poll by the Sociological Research Center in Madrid, unemployment is the most acute concern for the people of Spain. Immigration ranks fifth. But unlike other Europeans, Spanish people haven’t generally blamed unemployment on immigration.

Nevertheless, in December, a far-right party has won seats in a Spanish regional election for the first time since the 80s. The Vox party won 12 seats in the southern province of Andalusia, beating expectations that it would win five. Polls suggest that it could win a seat in the lower house of parliament in the 2020 election. Meanwhile, the leader of the opposition People’s Party, Pablo Casado, made a statement in July last year, “there can’t be papers for everyone, nor is it sustainable for a welfare state to absorb the millions of Africans who want to come to Europe."

Spanish far-right party Vox leader Santiago Abascal center celebrates during an election night party in Seville Analusia on December 2 2018  Photo ImagoAgencia EFERAlcaide

Christina Mas argues that the success of Vox in the south cannot be attributed to migration, although both the traditional right and the far-right parties have used it as a political tool. "The general political crisis, as in what is going on with the monarchy, the crisis in Catalonia and the economic crisis have all contributed to this," Mas explained further.

Abdellatif El Bekkari from Accem, however, is of the opinion that Vox has made inroads in a part of the country which is economically weak in comparison. Thus, people there may be starting to feel that undocumented migrants, such as the ones who arrive from Morocco, may be taking their jobs.

What’s in store for 2019?

Many experts believe that migration will not stop unless the factors that lead to people seeking refuge or inequalities that force people to migrate in their home countries are dealt with. Barcelona based journalist Mas pointed out, "the fact that European politicians in charge are using this natural phenomenon as a political tool is making things worse."

Speaking to InfoMigrants, Mas said, "the choices available to migrants right now are Spain or Salvini’s Italy. And I believe it makes sense to try your luck with the former." She argues that historically when restrictions are imposed and walls are built, it actually ends up in accelerating migration.

Mas also pointed out that migrants are very well aware of the political atmosphere in Europe and thus next year we may witness a situation where refugees and migrants will be trying to flee before things get really impossible. "This will lead the people to embark on dangerous journeys with less preparation, putting their lives in danger."


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