Differing in its approach to other European governments, Spain opted to put human life and safety first and worry about policies and procedures second – a move that was championed by much of Spanish society, which has long been clamouring for its government to do more to help would-be refugees held in intolerable conditions in overcrowded camps in Greece, Turkey and Italy, those attempting to cross Europe from the war-torn Middle East, and who risk their lives trying to cross the sea, often in dangerous crafts or at the hands of mafia-style organisations, or both.
Spain’s previous government, in power until June 2018, had also been willing to take in and resettle refugees, but wanted to wait for common policies to be established throughout Europe – something that still has not happened.
And the Aquarius‘ 629 passengers, of whom 83 were children – 73 of whom unaccompanied and 10 travelling with their families – could not wait, being holed up in the middle of the Mediterranean with food and medical supplies running low and no country apparently willing to take them in.
Twelve months after Spain’s courageous move, 371 of the Aquarius’ passengers have completed their asylum applications and are waiting for a response, which is likely to be positive in most cases.
They include 30 or so Nigerian women who have been victims of human trafficking and forced into sex slavery.
About half of them – around 300 – wanted to go to France and apply for asylum; France ended up agreeing to 80 being transferred.
The Aquarius‘ passengers are nationals of 25 countries, and the 300 who wanted to head north of the Pyrénées are originally from French-speaking nations, meaning they hoped to be able to settle in a country which shared their native language.
A total of 69 abandoned the rescue programme and moved on, meaning that after 80 had gone to France, 480 are now attempting to rebuild their lives in 14 of Spain’s 17 autonomously-governed regions.
Upon their arrival, all passengers were immediately granted an emergency 45-day stay – although a handful did not meet the criteria set out by the Geneva Convention on refugees and were given a 30-day stay, as were another 60 rescued by the charity Open Arms a few weeks later.
During this time, they were guaranteed the opportunity to apply for asylum and the help they needed to do so.
Until their asylum applications are given a formal response, they have the right to stay in the country in which they are seeking refugee status.
For those who get a positive response, they will be accompanied at all times by a refugee support charity during an ‘integration period’ of between six and 18 months.
This ‘integration period’ involves intensive language lessons, teaching about Spanish law, society and culture, help in finding housing and jobs and in registering with town halls and for healthcare, professional or vocational training, or conversion of existing qualifications.
Refugees fleeing war, persecution or serious political instability are often already highly-qualified and experienced in valuable professions or trades, including engineering, medicine and education, and the cost to the State of updating their training to reflect procedures in their country of settlement, and teaching them the language, is often far less than that of training a person in the same line of work from scratch.
Most are prepared to take any work offered, but the idea is for those with the most ‘useful’ professions to be placed in their original type of job where possible.
By far the highest number of Aquarius migrants is based in the Comunidad Valenciana, where the ship dropped anchor – 239, of whom 200 are in the province of Valencia, 20 in that of Castellón and 19 in that of Alicante – although they are distributed all over the country.
Andalucía is home to 67 (15 in the province of Almería, 17 each in Sevilla and Granada, 10 in Córdoba, two in Málaga and six in Cádiz), 18 in Aragón (six in Teruel and 12 in Zaragoza), 17 in the Balearic Islands, five in Cantabria, two in Castilla-La Mancha (one each in the provinces of Ciudad Real and Guadalajara), 18 in Castilla y León (10 in the province of Valladolid, four in Soria, three in Burgos and one in Ávila), six in Extremadura (all in the province of Badajoz), 15 in Catalunya (12 in Barcelona and three in Girona), 10 in Galicia (two in the province of A Coruña and eight in Pontevedra), 10 in the Basque Country (one in the province of Álava, the capital of which is Vitoria, five in Vizcaya, where the capital is Bilbao, and four in Guipúzcoa, where the capital is San Sebastián), 15 in Madrid, 19 in Navarra and 26 in Murcia, with another 13 as yet unconfirmed by the interior ministry.
It is hoped that by the second anniversary, or certainly the third, of the Aquarius‘ docking in Valencia, reports will come through of most of the 480 who remained in Spain being settled into homes, jobs and local communities, and children in school.
Spain ‘alone in its bravery and solidarity’ as ‘Europe turns its back’
Spain’s exceptional humanitarian gesture in taking in the Aquarius migrants was, however, just that – its larger objective, that of launching a blanket migration policy for the whole of Europe, has failed, despite Spain’s ongoing efforts, say experts.
“Spain has been left alone in trying to create these policies, up against a Europe which has turned its back. Spain attempted to build an alliance with France and Germany to set up a rescue programme, but never got the support it needed.”
“All European nations have abandoned the rescue and patrol programme in the central Mediterranean and have delegated the job to Libya of making sure migrants don’t arrive in the first place,” says legal advisor for the Spanish Commission for Refugee Aid (CEAR), Paloma Favieres.
“The decision to let the Aquarius disembark in Valencia was a massive step for the government and a very brave one, because over 600 people were saved from the hell they were going through in Libya and because Spain became the first and most active voice for migrants in Europe.”
A lawyer who has many years of experience in assisting migrants, including asylum-seekers and those granted refugee status, Paloma Favieres is likely to be used to coping with scenes that would distress anyone not in her field; but after having been in Valencia port when the Aquarius docked to handle the legal issues on site, she says she had ‘never seen people so physically and emotionally damaged as those who stepped off the boat’.
“What I saw coming off the boat really traumatised me and still does,” she admits.
“All those people who have made it through Libya and lived through the hell that led them onto the Aquarius ought to be given a residence permit on humanitarian grounds.
“If they’re not given refugee status, they need to be given another type of protection.
“National law does not define what ‘humanitarian reasons’ are, as this is at the discretion of the authorities; but the brave decision of the government to let the Aquarius dock was also made at their discretion.”
Also head of policies and campaigns for the Asylum and Refugee Office (OAR), Paloma says it would ‘not be consistent or sustainable’ for the Aquarius’ passengers to be denied refugee status after president Pedro Sánchez ‘took the step of taking them in and treating them differently’ to other migrants arriving in Spain via similar channels.
Chairman of Spain’s branch of Doctors Without Borders, David Noguera, says European governments’ response to the human crisis in the Mediterranean and in Libya ‘has just been a race into a bottomless pit’.
“A year ago, we implored European governments to put human life before politics,” Noguera says.
“We advocated a human response; a response that would end the politically-driven dehumanisation of vulnerable people on the sea. But a year on, the response from Europe has plumbed new, devastating depths.”
Noguera quotes figures from Doctors Without Borders that estimate the number of migrants who have lost their lives in stretch of the Mediterranean where the Aquarius operated, since the start of 2019, as being over 1,150, and the number forced to return to Libya as being over 10,000.
Journalist Javier Gallego Crudo, interviewed by Doctors Without Borders in the May edition of their magazine published in Spain, believes ‘compassion fatigue’ is making the public immune to the plight of migrants in the Mediterranean – and even considers this is a deliberate strategy.
“I think we’ve all been a bit anaesthetised by a bombarding of information which, as ‘shock theory’ tells us, leaves us immune to other people’s ills,” Gallego Crudo argues.
“In fact, it’s being engineered so that’s exactly what happens.
“The response to this should be action, protest and solidarity, which are the main weapons against indifference.”
Migrants reaching Spain by sea trebled at the end of 2018, although they started to reduce again in the first few months of 2019 due to ‘certain success’ in preventing arrivals from Morocco, says Dr de Lucas, although around 8,000 have made it alive to Spanish shores, with 164 dying en route.
Coastguard workers in Spain, who are on hand to help arrivals and also to rescue those in trouble out to sea, have complained they are exhausted and overwhelmed with the intensity of their workload and have called for the government to provide more staff.
Spain hasn’t given up
Dr de Lucas says that, in practice, migrant boats and climbing border fences from Ceuta and Melilla do not account for the main influxes – the majority of migrants arrive via airports on tourist visas, then deliberately outstay them.
He proposes reorganising arrivals with methods such as jobseekers’ visas.
Secretary of State for migration, Consuelo Rumí, says the national government is working on a strategy to try to prevent migrants from jumping into unsafe boats to get to Europe with ‘measures that would regulate these arrivals in a safe, orderly and legal way’.
In line with Dr de Lucas’ proposals, the strategy described by Consuelo Rumí and which involves several different ministries tackling the issue together focuses on methods such as contracting workers for agricultural harvests in their country of origin.
For the ‘red fruit’ season – strawberries and cherries, among other recent crops – a total of 19,000 non-EU migrants were given work permits.
Immigration is an opportunity, Spain’s government says, to cover work needs in industries which ‘do not fit the profile’ of unemployed Spaniards or permanent residents.
This could include work that requires constant geographical mobility – following crop harvests round the country – which would be unsuitable for existing resident jobseekers with established homes, family or other commitments that prevent them from living a more nomadic lifestyle.
It could also involve providing services to other members of the arrivals’ own cultural community which Spaniards or other EU citizens would not be able to offer.
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- Migrants from Aquarius rescue convoy arrive in port of Valencia
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- More than 1,000 migrants rescued from Mediterranean over weekend
- New migrant arrivals bring Mediterranean death toll to 239 this year
- US Navy confirms Mediterranean rescue operation
- Italian military ships to escort ‘Aquarius’ to Spanish port of Valencia
- Europe takes sides over migrant rescue ship
- For ‘Aquarius’ migrants, going to Spain is either paradise or punishment
- The long and arduous journey that the ‘Aquarius’ migrants still face
- Updated: EC says ‘Malta behaved according to international rules’ in Aquarius case
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