Pressure on the Atlantic migrant route has increased to the point that migrants are now camping out near the port of Bilbao, on Spain's northern coast, in order to try to hide on cargo ferries bound for Portsmouth, on England's southern coast. The migrants conceal themselves precariously between the axles of lorries or inside containers.
Spanish police sources said the uptick on the route is due in large part to the evacuation of French refugee camps in Calais. For many migrants fleeing poverty in their countries of origin, the "Basque route" is increasingly becoming a viable alternative to the other continental migratory routes. It's the back door for entry into England.
At least two hundred migrants, most from from Albania but others from Morocco, Algeria, Pakistan, Iraq, and Syria, have been tent camping for weeks near the high metal fence at the port in Zierbena. The small town is about 20 kilometres from Bilbao, where each week at least three ferries make the crossing for the southern English ports of Poole or Portsmouth. The migrants wait for an opportune moment to hide themselves on lorries or in containers aboard ferries headed for England via the Bay of Biscay in the Atlantic Ocean.Police have intercepted 1,346 undocumented migrants so far in 2017, up from 330 in 2016 and 119 in 2015.
Meanwhile, thousands of migrants have passed through the extremely precarious makeshift tent camp in Zierbena.Shipping companies denounce the damages caused by the migrant traffic and the risks inherent in the journey the migrants undertake. "Many try to hang between the trailer axles of lorries, risking their lives," said Manuel Pascual of Brittany Ferries Espana in a statement to the press. For each undocumented migrant intercepted on the ferries, the shipping companies have to pay a fine to the British government and provide for the migrant's repatriation. But many of the migrants, once they get sent back to Bilbao, simply try again.
Most of the young people camped out in Zierbena are identified and don't cause problems, according to Spanish police spokesman Esteban Izquierdo. "Most of them are Albanian and can stay here, because in the Schengen Area they don't need visas. But they need one in order to disembark in the United Kingdom," he said.Once they reach British ports, there are continuous expulsions.Of the 1,346 migrants intercepted since the beginning of the year, only 55 escaped British police, while the large majority were sent back to Spain. Despite this, the Albanian mafia is allegedly using the port of Bilbao as a base for its illegal human trafficking operations, taking advantage of the fact that undocumented Albanians on European soil are subject only to a "mere administrative infraction", according to British daily The Times. It said they pay "up to 2,000 euros to the Albanian mafias" for the crossing to Portsmouth.Hundreds remain camped out near the port and in the woods near Zierbena, using runners to warn of the arrival of police patrols.
A coordinated effort between the Bilbao Port Authority, the Basque Police and Spanish Police, the Spanish Civil Guard, the Coast Guard, customs, and the prefecture is working to slow the traffic through increased 24-hour controls, including aboard ferries, with carbon dioxide sensors to reveal the presence of people in containers. However, thus far the efforts haven't served to stem the increasing migrant flow on the new Atlantic route. (Picture from archive shows the port of Bilbao)