In the eastern Pyrenees, on the border between France and Spain, the number of migrants arriving is increasing. French authorities said they intercepted a record number of 13,000 people in 2021 in Cerbère, the first French village after the border. In the nearest big city Perpignan, associations helping migrants say they are overwhelmed.
More and more migrants are trying to enter France from Spain through the area bordering the Mediterranean, via the French village of Cerbère. Before 2021, the majority of new arrivals came via the Atlantic coast, towards Irun and Hendaye, in the Basque Country.
Last year, 13,000 people "who had no document to travel to France" were intercepted in Cerbère, the prefect of the Pyrenees-Orientales department, Etienne Stoskopf, told the press during a visit to this border area in early January. "We have never faced such strong migratory pressure here. 2021 was a record year," he added.
The crossing point between Portbou, on the Spanish side, and Cerbère, on the French side, now accounts for 35% of all the annual influx of irregular migration in the Pyrenees-Orientales, compared to only 19% in 2019, according to figures from the prefecture. "Cerbère is becoming a hot spot for illegal crossings," insisted Stoskopf.
'Militarization of the border'
Migrants board a train from Spain or take the hiking trails at night bypassing the Balistres pass. To avoid police checks, deployed in large numbers in the area, the migrants take more risks and go through the dangerous railway tunnel. "Every time I work in the tunnel between Spain and France, I meet several of them," David Cerdan, a CGT-SNCF union delegate, told InfoMigrants. The railway worker says that on some days he can see between 50 and 60 people walking on the tracks.
Faced with the increase in crossings on the Vermeille coast, the state is taking measures: barbed wire has been installed at the exit of the railway tunnel, police controls have been further strengthened throughout the region, on the road and on trains, but also at the exit of stations in the region, a plane of the border police (PAF) flies over the area several times a week, and a joint Franco-Spanish squad is expected to be created soon.
"We are seeing a real militarization of the border," says Josie Boucher, president of Asti 66 (Association of Solidarity with All Immigrants), contacted by InfoMigrants. "The police are everywhere: on the trains, on the road, at the stations, hidden in the groves... We are witnessing a manhunt all the way to Perpignan," the first major French city about 40 kilometers from the Spanish border.
The authorities are also targeting the smugglers. In the month of October alone, 39 traffickers were arrested in Perpignan and 22 in September, compared to the usual 10 per month.
In Perpignan, 'it's getting worse and worse'
But despite the large police presence, exiles and smugglers manage to deceive the vigilance of the authorities. In Perpignan, associations say they are overwhelmed by the arrivals of migrants.
"There are more and more people sleeping in the streets, on pieces of cardboard. Every day, about fifty people arrive in a terrible state, sometimes without shoes, including many minors and some families," says Flora (she did not want her last name published), president of the association Au cœur de l'humanité, which conducts marauding in the city.
"Last Friday, I distributed 70 meals and it wasn't enough. Before, I used to prepare 30 and I had too many," continues the activist. "It's getting worse and worse."
Perpignan is considered a transit city by migrants, who are hoping to reach other cities in France. But some of them are so destitute and without any contact in the country that they stay there for years. Collectives open squats to offer them a roof, as the state accommodation is completely saturated.
'Families call me from Algeria'
The majority of migrants who pass through the Vermeille coast are from Algeria. According to Flora, a large part of them come from the city of Mostaganem.
They get into boats from the Algerian coast, disembark in Spain and continue their journey to France. This migratory route in the Mediterranean Sea, used for years by Algerians to reach France, saw a resurgence in 2021. According to Spanish authorities, nearly 10,000 Algerian nationals entered the country irregularly between January and November, 20% more than in 2020 at the same time.
"Migration to Spain is an old phenomenon, but in 2021 there were many more departures," Said Salhi, vice-president of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH), confirmed to InfoMigrants last November. Among them, many "young men between 18 and 35 years old, from the coastal cities of the country, such as Oran, Mostaganem, Boumerdès or Algiers," also specified Francisco José Clemente, founder of Heroes del Mar. Groups of 10 to 15 people set off aboard semi-rigid motor boats, or inflatable boats, fleeing from the economic gloom of the country and the political instability.
The Hirak Movement, the popular protest movement that started in February 2019, had revived the hopes of Algerian youth, plagued by a lack of work and prospects. But, more than two years later, their expectations have been disappointed. The population, whose median age does not exceed 30 years, still has to deal with an aging political class, which clings to the advances of the war of independence.
"I regularly receive calls from Algerian families whose son has disappeared since crossing the Mediterranean," says Flora. In addition to this, she receives phone calls from people who want information on the situation in France. "I even get calls from grandparents who want to go to sea. I do not know what to tell them. The situation in Algeria is catastrophic and they believe their only hope lies here."