1. Home
  2. Europe

As Spanish rescue policy changes, warnings over migrant drownings

Photo of a silhouette of a man looking out at the Mediterranean Sea from a ferry to Spain Markel Redondo/UNHCR
A man looking at the Mediterranean sea from a ferry heading to Spain.

European countries have clamped down on migrant rescues in the Mediterranean this year. Attention on drownings has focused on the central route and the large numbers of vessels continuing to leave Libyan shores, but for the second year in a row warnings of a humanitarian crisis further west are growing.

More than 200 people have died on the Western Mediterranean route between Morocco and Spain in 2019, including at least 22 on 19 June. Spain’s maritime rescue service, Salvamento Marítimo, pulled almost 300 migrants and asylum seekers from a total of eight more boats on Saturday and Sunday.

Human rights organisations and some members of Salvamento Marítimo argue that at least some of the deaths in the Western Mediterranean could have been prevented. They accuse the Spanish government of a lack of support and resources after a recent decision to overhaul who is responsible for rescues in the sea between Spain and Morocco.

According to Spanish government figures, more than 60,000 people crossed irregularly last year to Spain. While the number of arrivals is far lower than that seen by Greece and Italy in the past years, for Spain they represented a significant increase.

The same figures show a sharp drop in the number of arrivals in February this year, after the government’s new rescue policies came into effect. Still, in a recent report by cabinet advisors to the Spanish prime minister, the government noted that it expects 2019 arrivals to be higher than last year.

Manuel Capa, who works for Salvamento Marítimo aboard the Polimnia, a 100-foot (30-metre) long rescue ship, told The New Humanitarian the rescue service was “overwhelmed” and “collapsing” last summer due to the spike in the number of rescues.

Capa worries that Salvamento Marítimo will again be overwhelmed if the number of arrivals rises as the 2019 summer progresses, especially now that the Spanish government is, he says, seeking to avoid its rescue responsibilities under international maritime law.

“Everything is pointing towards another surge this summer,” Capa said. “But instead of bringing in reinforcements, the government is moving ships out of the rescue area.¨

Both Capa and Ismael Furío, president of Salvamento Marítimo’s union committee, pointed to what they described as a more general effort to avoid rescues by Spanish ships, and thus avoid bringing those rescued to Europe instead of Africa.

The change in policy

Salvamento Marítimo said it was pushed to the limit last year, as record numbers of people attempted to cross the Strait of Gibraltar and the Alborán Sea to Spain’s southern shores – arrivals on this route in 2018 overtook the Central Mediterranean for the first time.

As local news broadcast images of overwhelmed rescue and reception services, far-right politicians began campaigning on heavily anti-immigrant platforms.

Leading up to national and European elections earlier this year, the ruling centre-left PSOE party unveiled a new strategy aimed at reducing arrivals.

The plan involved shifting control of sea rescue along the southern border to the Guardia Civil, Spain’s military police. Salvamento Marítimo would no longer actively patrol the stretch of sea between Spain and Morocco, and only rescue when called to do so. 

Ships belonging to the rescue service, which had been brought to the southern border in 2018 to help with the surge in arrivals, were moved to other parts of the country; the Spanish planned to rely more on Moroccan coast guards to intercept migrant vessels before they could reach the Spanish rescue area. 

Meanwhile, Salvamento Marítimo’s social media accounts, which in the past had documented every rescue the agency engaged in, would stop routine announcements.

“The idea is that, if anything serious happens, we’ll rescue. But otherwise we wait for the Moroccans to come.”

In February, Salvamento Marítimo’s security and safety committee discussed plans to move four mid-sized rescue ships out of the Sea of Alborán, where most rescues take place, according to a leaked internal report seen by TNH. The document explained that a larger ship, the Clara Campoamor, would be responsible for rescues in their place.

Employees at Salvamento Marítimo told TNH they worry that one ship isn’t enough for such a long stretch of coast, and recalled times when their ships were called to locate a boat full of migrants but ordered not to rescue them. “The idea is that, if anything serious happens, we’ll rescue,” explained Furió. “But otherwise we wait for the Moroccans to come.”

Capa explained further: “We leave, we find the boat, and then wait one or two miles away, waiting for the Moroccans to come and rescue. If their motor is working, they’ll start coming towards us, and we’ll avoid them and head north towards Spain.”

Outsourcing rescue operations

The changes in the Spanish government’s migration policy were announced at a closed-door meeting in Madrid in mid-March.

According to three people present at the meeting, the then-director of Salvamento Marítimo, Ignacio Lopez, explained them to a group of representatives from NGOs working along the southern border. 

“The operational philosophy on the southern border has changed,” López told the group, according to the three sources TNH spoke to, all of whom insisted on being quoted on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the information.

Months earlier, the European Commission had approved a €148 million payment to support Moroccan border management, as the Spanish government unrolled its new strategy.

Since then, Moroccan police have been accused of violently raiding migrant camps along the country’s northern border, and internally deporting people to the southern and eastern edges of the country. At a June press conference in Rabat, Morocco’s foreign minister claimed that its police operations have halved the number of arrivals to Spain, but would not comment on what happened to migrants who were turned back.

Spain’s reliance on Morocco to enforce its border is part of a growing trend that has seen the EU outsourcing its migration control policies, from Libya to Turkey to Niger.

Read more → Biometrics: The new frontier of EU migration policy in Niger

¨It’s European money in exchange for non-European border control,̈” said Dr. Violeta Moreno-Lax, an immigration law professor at Queen Mary University of London.

Employees of Salvamento Marítimo fear this new border strategy – and being ordered not to engage – is only making the crossing more deadly.

“The government is saying that the number of arrivals is lower, but really the situation is getting worse,” said Furío. “What has lowered are the arrivals to Spain. They are telling us to stand by and wait for Morocco to rescue – Morocco is taking the other half. The only difference in arrivals is there.”

A Spanish government spokesperson did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the impact of the new measures, but did acknowledge the broader policy change at Salvamento Marítimo and the March meeting where this policy was explained to local NGOs.

Carmen Lorente, a spokesperson for Salvamento Marítimo, disputed accounts of the rescue agency standing by near rescues and waiting for the Moroccans to come. She said Morocco and Spain collaborate closely and that the rescue agency does regularly contribute ships and airplanes to assist in rescues coordinated by the Moroccan authorities.

Moroccan deportations

As with the maritime borders between Italy and Libya, and Greece and Turkey, in Morocco, European and Spanish money has bought an increase in police and coast guard activity to help seal the border, as well, critics say, as increased human rights violations against refugees and migrants. 

“But the agreement with Morocco isn’t a copy of the agreement with Libya,” Moreno-Lax said. “Rather, it’s the other way around.”

“People are fleeing for reasons of refuge, or for economic reasons – they are going to keep coming, regardless of whether or not the sea route is closed. And Morocco isn’t a safe country for immigrants and refugees.”

She explained that Europe first began using these types of agreements in the early 2000s to stem migration from Morocco, Mauritania, and Senegal to the Spanish Canary Islands. That was part of the first operation of Frontex, the European border agency, and involved Spanish coast guard ships patrolling territorial waters of the three African countries. 

“Spain has long been the test lab for the rest of Europe’s border policies,” said Moreno-Lax.

Esteban Beltrán, director of Amnesty International in Spain, said the new agreements between Spain and Morocco are ¨not transparent¨ and fundamentally make the Western Mediterranean route more dangerous.

“People are fleeing for reasons of refuge, or for economic reasons – they are going to keep coming, regardless of whether or not the sea route is closed,” he said. “And Morocco isn’t a safe country for immigrants and refugees.”

Beltrán said Amnesty had gathered first-hand reports of raids, violence, and cases of internal deportations by Moroccan police. Carried out in cities and rural areas along the country’s north coast, where many refugees and migrants live, this involves them being forcefully bussed to the south of the country or out east across the Algerian border. Spanish journalists have documented similar reports.

The European Commission is aware of the reports of police violence and human rights violations by Moroccan police, said Xavier Cifre, a commission spokesperson, adding: “Morocco advocates for a humanistic approach that considers human rights and integration as its first priority. Respect for human rights is fundamental to the EU’s approach to migration management.”

Cifre did not say whether or not the European Commission had addressed these issues directly with Morocco.

José Villahoz, president of Algeciras Acoje, a local humanitarian group in the southern Spanish city of Algeciras, echoed concerns over another surge this summer, and over how those who aren’t able to make it to Europe will be treated.

“More people will try to come this summer. The conditions in their home countries aren’t good,” Villahoz said. “Only now, the real EU border is in Africa, and those police forces are the ones acting on behalf of the European Union. What happens now depends on them.”


(TOP PHOTO: A man looking at the Mediterranean sea from a ferry heading to Spain.)

Share this article

Get the day’s top headlines in your inbox every morning

Starting at just $5 a month, you can become a member of The New Humanitarian and receive our premium newsletter, DAWNS Digest.

DAWNS Digest has been the trusted essential morning read for global aid and foreign policy professionals for more than 10 years.

Government, media, global governance organisations, NGOs, academics, and more subscribe to DAWNS to receive the day’s top global headlines of news and analysis in their inboxes every weekday morning.

It’s the perfect way to start your day.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian today and you’ll automatically be subscribed to DAWNS Digest – free of charge.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.