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Surge in migrant arrivals in Spain

Charlotte Hauswedell
August 18, 2017

Recent numbers of migrants arriving on European shores suggest shifting migration routes. While numbers in Italy fell sharply in July and August, Spain is experiencing a peak in refugee numbers.

Spanien Tarifa Ankunft Flüchtlinge Migranten
Image: picture alliance/AP Images/M. Moreno

This week, Spain's maritime rescue service saved more than 920 migrants in two days trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea from Morocco to Spain on boats. Just a week before, an amateur video showed the arrival of a crowded rubber dinghy on a Spanish beach near Cadiz. Migrants from Sub-Sahara Africa ran to the shore, surprising bewildered tourists enjoying the summer sun.

Spain is witnessing the largest wave of arrivals since the beginning of the year. Some 2,600 migrants arrived in July (sea and land), which is a jump of more than four times on July 2016 numbers. So far in 2017, more migrants have arrived to Spain than in all of 2016. The total is at 9,738 until now, according to data released by the United Nations' refugee agency UNHCR.

Sudden shift in July

Most sea arrivals are reported along the Strait of Gibraltar which is the narrowest passage of the Mediterranean Sea separating Spain from Morocco. It measures only 14 kilometers at the narrowest point, prompting migrants to try to cross the passage in canoes or paddle boats. Smugglers operating in the Strait of Gibraltar transport migrants on jet-skis to Spain, taking thousands of euros for a 10-minute trip. 

Recent data on migrant flows by UNHCR and the EU border agency Frontex shows the Western Mediterranean route has become more frequented only in recent months. Until June of this year, the UNHCR reported a constant rise in numbers along the Central Mediterranean Route from Libya to Italy. In July, however, numbers for sea arrivals fell 57 percent for Italy while Spain saw an increase. The trend for Italy continued into August with 73 percent fewer arrivals in the first half compared to the same period last year.

Infografik Migrant arrivals (by sea and land) ENG

Sharp fall in Italy

Experts state various factors for the decrease. For one, the Italian government has put into place more aggressive measures to stem migrant arrivals on its shores, including sending Italian military ships to assist the Libyan coast guard with patrols and interception. However, according to figures from the UN's International Office of Migration (IOM), fewer than 2,000 migrants were intercepted by the coast guard since early July compared to more than 4,000 in May.

However, the Libyan Coast Guard recently announced it would expand its maritime rescue zone to step up efforts to block smugglers and intercept migrant boats. This comes after the Italian government has implemented a code of conduct for NGOs running migrant rescue missions at sea - a move that prompted many NGOs to halt their activities. The regulatory measure is seen as a controversial infringement by human rights organizations, while the Italian government sees it as an important step to handling the situation. Italy has been bearing the heaviest share of the migrant influx this year and Italian prosecutors have accused NGOs of colluding with smugglers, alleging they acted as pull-factors for migration to Europe.

Libyen Flüchtlinge Schlauchboot
Migrants intercepted by the Libyan coast guard are return to the port of TripoliImage: picture alliance/dpa/Str

Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti this week expressed optimism over the drop in migrant flows into Italy. "We're still inside the tunnel, which is long, but for the first time I'm starting to see the light," he said.

While political efforts could partly account for the decrease in arrivals, Frontex also cited other reasons, saying the first half of July brought worsening conditions along the Central Mediterranean route, which deterred departures. In addition, there were clashes in the coastal city of Sabratha, which is considered a key departure point in Libya for migrants who set out to cross the central Mediterranean headed for Italy.

Infografik Karte Migration flows in the Mediterranean 2017 ENG

Greece still on the radar

With 2,249 arrivals in July, Greece's monthly numbers are up slightly again this year compared to last summer. At the height of the migration crisis in 2015, however, these numbers had skyrocketed. More than 7,000 people had landed daily on the Greek islands in 2015. The record high was hit in October 2015 with a total of 221,638 arrivals - nearly 100 times more than what it is currently.

While Italy still outpaces Spain and Greece as a top destination by large numbers, Spain could be overtaking Greece soon. Authorities are also alarmed about recent incidents in the Spanish enclave Ceuta. Earlier this month, hundreds of migrants stormed the fence armed with sticks and stones.

While there are regular incidents of illegal border crossing in Ceuta and Melilla, the technique used to storm the border fence instead of climbing was new and took security personnel by surprise. According to Spanish border police, the migrants did not try to force through the double protection barrier, but started running in a tight group to reach the crossing en masse.