After his sister was lynched for being a lesbian and he was hounded for being related to her, Lassana Koulibaly fled his native Mali.
By – Guy Hedgecoe
With the vague idea of reaching Europe, the 20-year-old traveled through Algeria and Libya before arriving in Morocco, where a friend told him to try to get to Spain.
“I had heard that they respect human rights there and that they take people in and would treat me better than in all the other countries I’d been through,” he said. “I needed to have a better life and I knew I could die trying. Either I won and got to Europe, or I would lose and die.”
More and more migrants are making the same journey. As a clampdown on the route between Libya and Italy has taken hold, an increasing number have moved west, making Spain the biggest European destination for those seeking a better life. For Spain itself, their arrival could add another complication at a trying time for its political system.
Even when the economy hit a slump, between 2008 and 2012, immigration rarely featured on the political agenda.
As of July 18, 18,600 migrants had reached Spain by sea from Morocco since the beginning of this year, according to the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration, double the number for the same period in 2017 (Italy received just over 17,000 migrants by sea during that period this year and Greece 14,500). However, overall migrant arrivals to Europe have dropped substantially this year compared to 2017.
“It’s the law of gravity,” said Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell. “If you close the routes in the central Mediterranean, [migrants] will use the western Mediterranean routes instead.”
Koulibaly says he paid a small sum to join a group of people hoping to cross the Mediterranean in an inflatable boat. He and 57 others, including two pregnant women and a boy, crammed into the tiny vessel.
After a five-hour journey, they reached Europe in the same way that hundreds of migrants do each month: A boat belonging to Spain’s Salvamento Marítimo rescue service picked them up as they drifted in choppy waters a few miles from the coast of Andalusia. Since then, Koulibaly has been looked after by the Red Cross in the city of Málaga, which, like many places along Spain’s southern coast, has become the front line when it comes to dealing with the dramatic upturn in migrant arrivals.
So far, there’s been relatively little political fallout. But as numbers of arrivals continue to rise and with Spain’s politics in a state of flux, the country’s reputation for moderation on the issue of immigration could soon be tested.
“Spanish society is, overall, a tolerant one,” said Francisco Camas García of polling firm Metroscopia. “But it’s a fragile tolerance.”
In June, Italy, Malta and the European Union became involved in a bitter stand-off over the Aquarius, a charity-manned vessel carrying over 600 migrants who had been picked up in waters north of Libya. Italy’s interior minister, Matteo Salvini, refused to let the boat dock even though it was the nearest EU country. With Malta also refusing to take in the Aquarius, a potential crisis was brewing.
In a surprise move, Spain’s Socialist prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, who had only taken office a few days earlier, stepped in, announcing his country would allow the vessel to dock in Valencia, and would take in the migrants who were on board.
“It is our obligation to help avoid a humanitarian disaster by offering a safe harbor to these people,” Sánchez said.
His foreign minister, Borrell, described the decision as “a way of solving a specific problem and also a way of issuing a political message” that Spain was a place willing to help the EU by welcoming migrants.
Although migration has become an inflammatory issue in many European countries, Sánchez’s initiative sparked little outcry. On the political left, the welcoming of the Aquarius was applauded. Further right, Albert Rivera, leader of the Ciudadanos party, said “we cannot let hundreds of people die in the sea” while the Popular Party (PP), although more circumspect, stopped short of outright criticism.
This reflects a broad acceptance of immigration on the part of ordinary Spaniards. During the country’s decade-long economic boom, which began in the mid-1990s, around five million foreigners migrated to Spain. They were mainly Latin Americans and Eastern Europeans who were able to work legally, although thousands of sub-Saharan Africans also attempted to reach Spain in a trend that peaked in 2006.
“During the boom years, when Spain had a big influx of migrants, there was never a big rejection of them,” said sociologist Kiko Llaneras. “Spain has had large influxes of migrants before and it didn’t cause tensions in society.”
New conservative leader Pablo Casado’s positions on abortion, euthanasia and the Catalan crisis have defined him as a strident right-winger.
Even when the economy hit a slump, between 2008 and 2012, immigration rarely featured on the political agenda. While other EU countries have seen the arrival of anti-immigrant parties, the main new political force in Spain most frequently described as “populist” is the leftist Podemos, which advocates a liberal policy on immigration.
But while Llaneras doesn’t forecast a sudden backlash, he does believe that there is a chance the political mood could shift.
“If you look closely at the data, there is a certain movement regarding people’s attitudes to immigration,” he said. “But it’s something which is latent and no [main] party has yet made an issue of it.”
The only political party with any visibility which presents immigration as a major problem for Spain is Vox, which was created in 2014 and has yet to win any seats in parliament.
“We can’t send out the message: ‘All of Africa, all of Asia, all of Latin America, all of the planet where there are economic problems or security problems, or where there’s a war or a totalitarian regime — come to Spain, we’ll take you in,’” said Javier Ortega, Vox’s general secretary.
Vox’s policies, which include defending “Judeo-Christian” values and a fiercely unionist stance against Catalan nationalism, frequently draw claims that it is on the far right, a description it disputes.
But Ortega sees some foreigners as more welcome than others. He says that Latin Americans, for example, tend to integrate better than other nationalities, particularly those from the Arab world, who he says often have “cultural standards, standards of hygiene” which are incompatible with those of Spaniards.
With Moroccans currently representing the biggest single nationality arriving in Spain — 40,000 came last year, according to the National Statistics Institute — Ortega is predicting (some would say hoping for) integration problems.
“I don’t know if the fact that a lot of illegal people are coming means that many Spaniards who see this as a dramatic development are going to look at Vox and think ‘It’s just as well there’s a party like Vox which wants to cut off this flow, this humanitarian bleeding,’” Ortega said. “Well if they do, that’s a good thing.”
He says the party’s own polling shows it is on course to take “four or five” seats in parliament (a general election is due in 2020 at the latest) although official polls tend not to include it. Yet while Vox struggles to break into the mainstream, Spain’s overall politics have appeared to swing its way with the election of a new leader of the conservative PP, Pablo Casado.
Casado’s positions on issues such as abortion, euthanasia and the Catalan crisis have defined him as a strident right-winger and he now leads Spain’s largest party in terms of parliamentary seats. In the wake of Sánchez’s Aquarius announcement, Casado, then a PP spokesman, supported the initiative but added: “The important thing is what to do with these migratory flows that reach Europe and which are not going to stop unless there is a coordinated EU policy.”
Neglecting the human side
Ysabel Torralbo, a councilor who handles migratory issues for Málaga Ahora, a regional branch of Podemos, worries about the PP’s approach and is cautiously optimistic about the new Socialist government.
“The [previous] PP government was all about borders, police, controls, investment in radars and so on, but they didn’t worry about the human side,” she said in her office in Málaga city hall overlooking the Mediterranean. “Now there is a positive change in terms of perception and how to face up to this problem, but there has to be real action.”
Torralbo would like to see the removal of razor wire, which surrounds the Spanish cities of Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa to deter migrants from scaling the border fence. She also wants Spain to invest more funds in African countries so that their citizens do not feel impelled to leave.
In hotspots along Spain’s southern coast, resources are being stretched by the spike in migrant arrivals.
She fears a political or social recoil could be just around the corner and points to opposition among far-right Spaniards to a Socialist plan to exhume dictator Francisco Franco from his mausoleum and bury him elsewhere as proof of extremism in society.
“The Spanish political system still has a lot of remnants of other times,” she said. “Fascism, intolerance, racism and xenophobia — these things were all normal.
“In Málaga, people in general aren’t racist but as soon as something goes against them, that’s when it starts: ‘If I’m doing OK, I’m not racist, but if I’m not doing OK, then it’s their fault.’”
In hotspots along Spain’s southern coast, resources are being stretched by the spike in migrant arrivals.
“Right now we’re seeing double the numbers arriving compared to the same period last year and last year the number was double that of the previous year,” said David Ortiz, head of the Red Cross’s migrant and refugee department in Málaga.
“Can we manage the arrival of 300 people? Yes. But if those 300 people arrive on the same day, it gets difficult.”
On July 20-21 alone, 986 migrants arrived at different points along the Spanish coast. Málaga’s authorities have turned three public sports halls into emergency shelters for migrants. Ortiz is adamant that the current upswing in numbers is related to the summer weather, which makes sea crossings safer, and the squeezing of the Libya-Italy route, rather than any “draw effect” triggered by the arrival of a new Socialist government in Madrid.
Ortiz said the Red Cross had been told earlier this year that more than 50,000 migrants were already in North Africa, waiting to cross to Europe. And while he praised Spanish society’s acceptance of migrants, he said the numbers should not be blown out of proportion.
“Often, when we’re in the middle of a situation, we don’t have a clear perspective on it,” he said. “Fifty-thousand immigrants who might come to Europe, where there are 240 million people? I think we can offer a solution rather than seeing it as a problem. It’s a small drop in a very big ocean.”
Read more: From 2018/07/30