Migration policy in Spain: „We are part of the solution“

Spain was the first European country to use development aid on a grand scale to stop the migrants from coming. This is thought to be the model for current efforts of the EU.

Gibraltar – once the shortest connection between Africa and Europe, now a castle defying migration Foto: reuters

The large-scale influx of refugees into Europe via Turkey and Greece – this wouldn't have happened for Spain. At least that's what Jorge Fernández Diaz believes, Spain's interior minister from 2011 to 2016. „When it comes to migration policy, we are a model for Europe that everyone can refer to“, explains the devout Catholic, who states that in his prayers he asks his personal guardian angel for advice on political decisions. „When you look at the map, it's clear to see that the eastern Mediterranean countries – Turkey, Lesbos, Greece – form part of the problem. In comparison, the western Mediterranean countries, Spain, Morocco and the Strait of Gibraltar, are not part of the problem, but rather part of the solution“, he says praising the Spanish migration policy in an interview with the newspaper El País.

Indeed, Spain has successfully tightened up its southern border. The southern European kingdom maintains close relations in terms of migration control not only with Morocco, but also with the whole of West Africa (Mauritania, Cape Verde, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea Conakry, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon and Senegal).

However, this was not solely the achievement of the conservative Fernández Díaz. The main work can be ascribed to the former socialist government led by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (2004 to 2011). Zapatero and his cabinet discovered the „development cooperation as compensation for cooperation with migration control“ formula. Spain's regional policy forms the blueprint for what the billions of euros of EU money are trying to achieve today for half of Africa.

„We believe that it makes sense to link the increase in development aid to the drafting of readmission agreements“, the former justice minister and current socialist MEP Juan Fernando López Aguilar said frankly in 2006. „The countries that receive European money have to recognise the challenge we are facing and assume joint responsibility for coping with the migration flows“, the then Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos had explained, not long previously, in May 2006, in Brussels.

Beforehand, Spain's border policy had relied solely on good relationships with neighbouring Morocco, between 2006 and 2008, Madrid focused increasingly on the other West African countries, Mauritania, Senegal, Mali and Cape Verde in particular. This realignment was the result of a long shift in migration routes.

In 1992, following pressure from the European Union, which Spain had joined in the late 1980s, the country imposed a visa requirement for Moroccans. The consequences were not long in coming: From then on, if the weather was good, thousands of people crossed the Strait of Gibraltar in small wooden boats with outboard motors, so-called „Pateras“, or in bigger rubber dinghies. Spain reinforced its actions: the SIVE, the „Integrated Electronic Exterior Surveillance System“ was created, and this also became a blueprint, namely for the EU's later border surveillance network EUROSUR. Cameras, radar, helicopters and a control centre in Madrid monitor the entire Spanish coast around the clock. At the start of its construction, an estimated total of 260 million euros was spent on SIVE for the period between 2000 and 2008.

No sooner had the Strait of Gibraltar been tightened up, the refugees started to look for new routes. From then on, Ceuta and Melilla, the Spanish exclaves on Africa's northern coast, became the new targets. Thousands of refugees, primarily black Africans, gathered in the woods around the two cities and waited patiently for a chance to cross the border. In 2005 alone, the Spanish authorities recorded 128 mass attempts to cross. The border fence in both exclaves was reinforced. It increased in height and was equipped with heat sensors, light barriers, cameras, labyrinths of steel cable and razor wire.

According to the newspaper El País, it is estimated that since the end of the 1990s, a total of more than 140 million euros have been invested in the border fences. At the same time, the Moroccan police repeatedly cleared the woods around Ceuta and Melilla. Nevertheless, the flow of migrants trying to cross the border fences was never completely stopped. Especially in the last few years, mass attempts have occurred repeatedly. In 2014, 7,486 people tried their luck in this way.

„The reinforcement of the fences resulted in people seeking out new and increasingly dangerous routes“, the spokeswoman for the Spanish Commission for Refugee Aid (CEAR), Estrella Galán, feels certain. From the summer of 2006, the Canary Islands became the target. People crossed over in „cayucos“, a typical West African open wooden fishing boat with space for 90 to 170 passengers. Consequently, 2006 was a year characterized by a whole series of tragedies.

At first, the boats cast off from southern Morocco and from the beaches of the occupied former Spanish colony of Western Sahara. Madrid asked Rabat for help and Morocco's King Mohamed VI was happy to oblige. He had Western Saharan beaches monitored more closely, as this indirectly amounted to the recognition of the Moroccan sovereignty over the former Spanish colony. New routes were opened. Subsequently, the boats came from Mauritania and Senegal. Within a few months, what had initially been a journey of 90 kilometres, had turned into a journey of more than 2,500 kilometres. Instead of just one day, the refugees were now travelling for one or two weeks. The risk was increasing, but they kept on coming.

By that point, the government in Madrid realised that talks with West Africa had to be established and developed. Under a hastily developed „Africa Plan“ (2006-2008, the successor plan 2009-2012), ministries and diplomats started working. Their goal: In the future, the protection of Europe's border should start right in the middle of Africa. „Traditionally, there was hardly any presence or institutional relations of Spain in sub-Saharan Africa. In some cases, they were practically non-existent“, confessed the then Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos from Spain's Socialist Party. But then, this started to change. In 2006, Spain opened embassies in Cape Verde, Mali and Sudan, and in Niger, Guinea Bissau and Guinea Conakry. Senegal passed the „Loi 2005-06 relative à la lutte contre la traite des personnes et pratiques assimilées et à la protection des victimes“: Up to 10 years of prison for „illegal departure“.

But that was not all. Between 2006 and 2008, at total of 12 agreements with West African countries were concluded. In 2007, Spain agreed treaties with Mauritania on working migrants, with Cape Verde on the joint monitoring of the sea (2008), with Senegal on the prevention of the emigration of unaccompanied minors (2006), and with with Mali (2007), Niger (2007) and Senegal (2006) on development aid.

Even more important were the „Framework Agreements for Cooperation on Immigration“ with Gambia (2006), Cape Verde (2007), Guinea Bissau (2008), Guinea Conakry (2006), Mali (2007) and Niger (2008), as well as with Senegal and Mauritania. They were aimed at controlling the migration flows across the sea (from Senegal and Mauritania towards the Canary Islands), over land in the direction of Ceuta and Melilla and across the sea from Morocco to Spain. These „Second Generation Agreements“, as the Spanish government called them, regulate the readmission of migrants and police cooperation. In return, Spain promises development aid and a small number of regular entrance visas and work permits. The number of visas – mostly for unskilled work, such as domestic help or agriculture – varied each year, but was always low.

In Morocco „Police Cooperation Centres“ were established in Tangier and Algeciras. Interior Minister Jorge Fernández Díaz met his Moroccan counterpart no fewer than 13 times during the legislative period from 2011 to 2015. In the years 2009 and 2010, Senegal, Mauritania and Cape Verde each received one airplane for the surveillance of the coast; in addition, Mauritania received four patrol boats and one helicopter, which were partly operated by the Spanish Guardia Civil to train local soldiers.

Together with Mauritania, Spain maintains the programme „West Sahel“. The Spanish Guardia Civil works together with the local police in the West African country. But according to press reports, the Spanish police also patrol on their own. Furthermore, a migrant camp was established in Mauritania. For that purpose, in 2006 an old school was expanded in the port of Nouadhibou, where most of the cayucos cast off. Within the migrant community it is known as „Guantanamito“, or the little Guantanamo. The centre, which is financed by Spain but run by Mauritania, was opened without a legal basis, according to a 2008 Amnesty International delegation report. „It is not regulated by any law, there is no limit to the detention period.“

In November 2016, Amnesty International Spain was told by an official of the Mauritanian Interior Ministry: „The centre in Nouadhibou is not closed. But there are hardly any apprehensions. No one has been interned in the last three months. If one or two people are arrested, they are sent directly to the capital of Nouakchott and from there to the border with Senegal. But if larger groups of migrants are detained, they can also be interned in Nouadhibou.“

Spain's agreements stipulate extensive cooperation to fight the social causes for the emigration of the population towards Europe. But: „None of the Technical Cooperation Offices in the region (Algeria, Cape Verde, Morocco, Niger, Senegal, Mali and Mauritania) has personnel that deal specifically with migration“, wrote Urku del Campo Arnuadas from Jaume I University in Castelló in 2013. „But more and more often, we come across advisors and attachés from the military (Algeria, Morocco, Cape Verde, Mauritania) or from the Interior Ministry (Algeria, Morocco, Guinea Conakry, Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, Senegal, Niger and Mauritania) in the embassies in West Africa.“

The University of the Basque Country investigated the extent to which Spain was using development aid to persuade African countries to cooperate. From 2004 to 2008, it almost quadrupled its subsidies. The „Official Development Assistance“ increased by 280 per cent, at the same time it focused extremely on the West African region, which is important for transmigration. For this region, the aid payments increased in the same period by 529 per cent (see table). The money was allocated primarily by Spain's central government. The payments for police cooperation increased in 2007, the last year before Spain's economic crisis, by no less than 1,370 per cent. 79 per cent of them went to West Africa, mostly to Senegal and Mauritania, according to the Basque study titled „The Spanish Development Aid – In Return for the Readmission of Migrants?“.

The cooperation has been thoroughly lucrative for the West African countries. From 2005 to 2010, Morocco, for instance, received a total of 430.2 million euros in development aid from Spain, Algeria 165.3 million euros, Mali 103.3 million, Cape Verde 67.7 million and, Gambia 12.7 million. With the onset of the financial crisis, the grants decreased steadily.

Such a direct linkage between development cooperation and warding off refugees had so far been unprecedented. Spanish NGOs complained about this policy: „These funds must not be spent as official development aid. Everything points to the fact that the aid administered by the Interior Ministry rather serves the Spanish interest of controlling the African borders than improving the living conditions“, a letter from 2011 states.

The European border protection agency FRONTEX, in contrast, praises Spain for this policy. „The good operational cooperation between Spain, Senegal, Mauritania and Morocco has reduced the pressure on the Canary Islands significantly“, states the 2015 Annual Report. Spain's Conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy happily accepts the praise and boasts about this policy: „I have to say that several African leaders have approached me to express their appreciation for the work that Spain carries out in the matter of cooperation and dialogue on migration questions“, he explained at the migration summit in the Maltese capital of Valetta in the autumn of 2015.

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