Migrants sailing into Spain from Africa are multiplying so fast that the country could soon overtake Greece as the port of call for those fleeing poverty, political upheaval and armed conflict.
In the first eight-and-a-half months of this year – up to and including Friday, August 11 – a total of 8,385 Africans reached Spain by sea, compared with 11,713 arriving in Greece by the same method.
And the total number of migrants so far in 2017 – not just those who reached Spain by water – sits at 11,849, whilst in the whole of 2016, the figure was 13,246.
These are the known figures, since a significant minority get to Spain undetected or manage to make a run for it before they are accounted for.
Where they come from and how they get here
According to the International Observatory for Migration, most African immigrants come from the former British colonies of Sudan, Egypt, Nigeria and Guinea-Conakry, the ex-Italian colony of Somalia, the former French territories of Sénégal, Mali and the Côte d’Ivoire – now its official title, having dropped the international name of ‘Ivory Coast’ – and the ex-Portguese territory of Guinea Bissau.
They cross through Niger, Libya and Chad en route to Italy and Greece, but with the crossing to Spain being quicker and considered safer, they are tending to head through Western Sahara and then Morocco or Algeria.
And they do not necessarily have to cross open seas to get to Spain: the only EU country that shares a land border with Africa, Spain has two city-provinces on the Moroccan coast – Ceuta, which is directly across the Strait from Gibraltar as the crow flies, and Melilla, near the Algerian border.
Once they are safely on Spanish soil on the African continent, they can get a ‘legitimate’ crossing to the mainland without having to show proof of residence, since they are only travelling from one province of the same country to another.
Others head for the Canary Islands, which are only 100 kilometres from the west coast of Morocco.
Those who go to the mainland first typically head for the south coasts, although they have been known to dock as far north as Moraira and Jávea (northern Alicante province).
But both Greece and Spain are a long way behind Italy which, as at this weekend, had seen 96,861 migrants arrive so far in 2017.
What happens to migrants who reach Spanish territory
This week, a barely-seaworthy dinghy docked on the Los Alemanes beach in Zahara de los Atunes (Cádiz province) in broad daylight in front of hordes of sunseekers, and the 30 or so believed to be on board dumped their craft and ran for the hills the second they hit dry land.
So far, nine have been found, all of whom are teenagers – none of them as old as 18 – with no ID.
Migrants arriving by land or sea who reach Spain cannot be turned straight back under international laws – this can only happen if they are caught at the border before crossing – meaning they are placed in immigrant internment centres where applications for asylum can be filed and considered.
All countries which have signed up to the Geneva Convention of 1955 are obliged to take in asylum seekers who fit the criteria of being at risk to their health and safety or their lives if they returned, and no country has ever withdrawn from the Convention.
Anyone from any country has a right to apply for asylum anywhere in the world, although this will only be granted if they are considered to fit the description of ‘refugee’, including political exiles.
Spanish society calls for better treatment for migrants
The international charity Doctors Without Borders has long complained Spain’s immigrant internment centres, known as CETIs or CIEs, are overcrowded and migrants live in poor conditions, largely because of the sheer number of them.
Thousands of ‘desperate new arrivals’ are ‘kept in prison-like conditions as though they are criminals’, the charity, and others like it, have often claimed.
Spanish society is one of the most receptive in Europe to taking in migrants and one of the most welcoming of foreigners, be they northern European expats seeking a new life in the sun, or African or Middle Eastern immigrants escaping poverty or war.
Numerous protests have been held clamouring for more refugees to be resettled, for CIEs to be closed or renovated, and more consideration given to migrants in general.
A 2012 ruling that ‘illegal’ or ‘unregistered’ immigrants would not be allowed free healthcare in a bid to ‘save money’ was met with collective outrage by Spain’s population, who called it inhumane, and has led to a partial reversal in the rule.
Doctors, in the majority, staged a conscientious objection and carried on treating them, whilst some regional governments actively rebelled and refused to enforce the ban.
In all regions, ‘illegal’ immigrants are at least entitled to emergency treatment, complete care in pregnancy and during childbirth, and full healthcare for any reason for those aged under 18.