Spain lacks capacity to handle migration surge, says UN refugee agency

UNHCR warning comes as Spanish coastguard intercepts nearly 600 people in a day trying to reach country from Morocco

Spain lacks the resources and capacity to protect the rising number of refugees and migrants reaching it by sea, the UN refugee agency has said.

The warning from UNHCR comes as the Spanish coastguard said it rescued 593 people in a day from 15 small paddle boats, including 35 children and a baby, after they attempted to cross the seven-mile Strait of Gibraltar.

The number of refugees and migrants risking the sea journey between Morocco and Spain has been rising sharply, with the one-day figure the largest since August 2014, when about 1,300 people landed on the Spanish coast in a 24-hour period.

About 9,300 migrants have arrived in Spain by sea so far this year, while a further 3,500 have made it to two Spanish enclaves in north Africa, Ceuta and Melilla, the EU’s only land borders with Africa.

Chart of child refugees and migrants arriving in Europe after crossing Mediterranean

María Jesús Vega, a spokeswoman for UNHCR Spain, said police were badly under-resourced and there was a lack of interpreters and a shortage of accommodation for the new arrivals.

“The state isn’t prepared and there aren’t even the resources and the means to deal with the usual flow of people arriving by sea,” she said.

“Given the current rise, we’re seeing an overflow situation when it comes to local authorities trying to cope at arrival points.”

Vega said the agency was seeing a very high number of vulnerable people including women, victims of people-trafficking, and children.

“What we’re asking is for there to be the right mechanisms in place to ensure people are treated with dignity when they come,” she said.

Migration map

Last week, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said Spain could become more popular than Greece as a destination for people seeking to enter Europe, as some look for alternatives to Italy.

About 12,440 people have arrived in Greece so far in 2017, according to UNHCR. The numbers heading to Spain and Greece are dwarfed by Italy, which has seen 97,376 arrivals so far this year. Although this is a reduction on the 101,512 people who arrived during the same period in 2016, the issue continues to cause problems for the authorities, with almost 5,000 people reaching Italy on one day in June.

William Spindler, a spokesman for UNHCR in Geneva, said: “There have been three main routes into Europe for many years, for decades: the central Mediterranean one, the eastern one from Turkey to Greece, and there has always been Spain.

“What is true is that when efforts are made to clamp down on one route, another tends to open up.”

UNHCR figures show that most of those arriving in Spain by sea set out from Morocco, although some also embark from Algeria. The majority of the migrants are from Cameroon, Guinea and the Gambia.

Vega said the continuing instability in Libya meant people trying to escape the war in Syria were trying to reach Europe via Ceuta and Melilla.

She said the agency had noticed an increase in the number of Moroccans travelling to Spain, coinciding with the end of Ramadan and unrest in the Rif region.

Although Vega stressed that the situation in Spain was hardly comparable with Italy, she said Madrid needed to do much more.

“This could be managed quite simply if it were properly addressed,” she said.

“[But] if there isn’t a proper response, we could see people who have fallen into the clutches of people-traffickers becoming merchandise. We’re going to see people who should have international protection facing danger if they’re returned home.”

Statistics compiled by the IOM show that more than 113,000 migrants and refugees have entered Europe by sea this year. To date, more than 2,300 have died in the attempt, 119 of them while trying to reach Spain.

Migrant and refugee arrivals in Europe chart

Italy has embarked on a flurry of initiatives to reduce numbers, including a diplomatic campaign to persuade tribes in the south of Libya to clamp down on people smugglers.

Marco Minniti, the Italian interior minister, has insisted that NGOs involved in sea rescues sign a code of conduct, which was sharply criticised by the UN-backed IOM.

Several aid groups refused to sign the code of conduct because they thought their neutrality would be compromised by taking armed police officers on board. At least three organisations signed it.

The Italian government remains under pressure, as neighbouring countries have tightened border controls, meaning refugees and migrants are unable to head north to France or Austria as they have done in the past.

On Wednesday, 70 Austrian troops were deployed to the Brenner pass to help police with border checks, the Italian news agency ANSA reported.

UNHCR said it was too soon to tell whether the recent drop in arrivals in Italy represented a downward trend or a temporary fluctuation.

Under pressure from the EU, the Libyan coastguard has stepped up interceptions of boats, while some NGOs have suspended work in the central Mediterranean because they felt threatened by Libya’s coastguard.

Both could explain the recent fall in sea crossings, but Spindler said: “We don’t have any hard evidence. We could see an increase in the next few weeks.”

Vega said the international community needed to do more to tackle the root causes of migration, such as conflict, climate change and economic instability, to reduce numbers.

“It’s clear that walls and fences aren’t going to deter anyone who’s desperate enough to risk their life and those of their children. Whatever lies ahead of them, it can’t be worse than what they’re leaving behind. They know they could die,” she said.

The Spanish government did not respond to a request for comment.

Contributors

Sam Jones in Madrid and Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

The GuardianTramp

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