Spain’s Migrant Wave Grows, Even as Europe’s Subsides

Migrants keeping warm in Red Cross blankets after arriving at the harbor in Málaga, Spain, earlier this month. A Red Cross coordinator in the area said the situation there had “reached a critical point.”

MÁLAGA, Spain — Spain’s new Socialist government has waded straight into Europe’s migration crisis — out of both choice and necessity.

Shortly after taking office in early June, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez won plaudits from aid groups for welcoming to Spain 630 migrants from the Aquarius, a rescue ship that had been turned away by Italy and Malta. But at home, Mr. Sánchez is under pressure to stem a sudden influx of migrants crossing from Morocco on inflatable boats.

The number of unauthorized migrants arriving in Europe from Africa, the Middle East and Asia has fallen sharply since 2016 — except in Spain, where it has soared.

Spain’s situation underlines its reliance on Moroccan authorities to stop migrants who try either to cross the Strait of Gibraltar or to climb the fences that surround Spain’s two enclaves in North Africa, Ceuta and Melilla. The increased flow has raised concerns in Spain that Morocco may have deliberately relaxed surveillance along its beaches facing Spain.

“Everyone is using migrants and asylum seekers these days as pawns, so why wouldn’t Morocco?” asked Judith Sunderland, an associate director at Human Rights Watch.

“Over the years, Morocco has used migration as a leverage in its bilateral relations with Spain, and the E.U. is projecting such panic over boat migration these days that it’s likely different actors will try to seek an advantage.”

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Credit...Raphael Minder/The New York Times

On Thursday, Spain’s interior and foreign ministers went to Rabat to meet their Moroccan counterparts and discuss migration after two weeks in which more than 2,000 migrants made the crossing by boat. Most were rescued at sea.

Josep Borrell, Spain’s new foreign minister, described the cooperation with Morocco as “excellent,” but warned that “we will probably face a rise in the number of arrivals by boat this summer.”

Mr. Borrell’s troubling forecast came as the situation in the southern Spanish region of Andalusia had already “reached a critical point that clearly exceeds our infrastructure capacity,” said Samuel Linares, who coordinates Spanish Red Cross activities in the province of Málaga, a part of Andalusia.

In fact, the Spanish authorities have been flouting their own migration protocols because of the squeeze on their staff and infrastructure. People who reach Spain illegally spend up to 72 hours in police custody, and if they are not deported right away, they are supposed to go to official migrant centers for up to 60 days, while their asylum claims are reviewed.

But the migrant centers are full. The authorities have turned to groups like the Red Cross to shelter and feed migrants, and in Málaga, the police have resorted recently to housing about 250 migrants in a sports center.

Kandjoura Drame, a 17-year-old from Guinea, is one of 34 West Africans who set off from a beach near Nador, Morocco, in an inflatable boat. After a night at sea, they were picked up by Spain’s maritime rescue services and then handed over to the police in the port city of Málaga.

Eventually, they ended up in an apartment fitted with bunk beds and managed by the Red Cross, on the square that was the birthplace of Pablo Picasso.

“A lot has happened and I don’t know what can happen next,” a despondent and worried Mr. Drame said, as he struggled to recount his harrowing journey.

The atmosphere in Málaga contrasts sharply with that in Valencia when the Aquarius docked on June 17. More than 2,000 Red Cross workers, medical staff and interpreters welcomed the migrants, who received a special humanitarian permit to stay for at least 45 days in Spain without threat of deportation.

“Nobody is offering special treatment for those who reach Andalusia,” said Francisco de la Torre, the mayor of Málaga. “We will need a better and far more coordinated response if we want to cope with this crisis.”

European Union leaders met this week in Brussels to try to resolve their divisions over migration. After a marathon round of talks, they agreed early Friday to set up new migrant centers within the bloc, as well as study whether to set up centers outside its borders, but without specifying how such plans would be implemented.

With its mainland just nine miles from Africa, Spain has long struggled with migration, and not only from Morocco. Last November, Spanish authorities sparked a public outcry when they put about 500 migrants from Algeria in a penitentiary because of a space shortage, before deporting them.

In the last year, Spain has played a more prominent role in the crisis. The number of migrants reaching the country nearly tripled last year, to almost 22,000, and reported drownings off the Spanish coast almost doubled, according to the International Organization for Migration; the pace of arrivals has continued to climb this year.

It has become harder to reach other parts of southern Europe, prompting traffickers to target Spain. A 2016 agreement between the European Union and Turkey has stemmed the flow of refugees reaching Greece, while Italy and Malta have denied rescue ships access to their ports.

“Mafias know how to switch quickly and find the easiest access ways to Europe, and I think we’re seeing a clear reactivation of the Moroccan route,” said Rafael Puyol, the director of the demographics observatory at the IE University in Madrid. Morocco, he added, “sees migration as an ingredient in its negotiations with Europe.”

Mr. de la Torre, the Málaga mayor, said the influx could be “a way for Morocco to send a strong reminder to the new Spanish government and Europe that helping Morocco matters.”

After meeting Mr. Borrell on Thursday, the Moroccan foreign minister, Nasser Bourita, said his government opposed proposals to set up screening centers for migrants outside the European Union. Mr. Bourita told reporters that the migration crisis could not be addressed with “easy solutions and counterproductive mechanisms.”

In Málaga, some migrants, particularly those from French-speaking African countries, say they want to travel to France. Others hope to settle in Spain.

Mohamed Sani, a 20-year old from Ghana, said he had paid the equivalent of more than $1,150 for the boat crossing, money that he had earned by carrying bags of cashews for Indian traders in his hometown. He wants to go to Barcelona, where he has friends and there is a famous soccer club.

“I’ve watched them play many times on TV — and a place that has good football must be a good place to live,” he said.

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