Spanish government criticised over response to immigration

Perceived U-turn prompts left to condemn Socialist policy while EU’s far right approves

The Spanish government is being accused of lurching to the right on immigration policy just weeks after capturing the headlines by welcoming a boatload of migrants who had been adrift in the Mediterranean.

In June, days after taking office, Socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez announced that Spain would take in the charity vessel Aquarius, which had picked up 629 migrants from inflatable boats off Libya. The gesture ended a bitter standoff between Italy and Malta, both of which had refused to allow the boat to dock, and immediately lent the new Spanish government a migrant-friendly image.

Mr Sánchez said then that taking in the vessel was an “obligation to help avoid a humanitarian disaster” and Spain allowed another charity boat with 87 migrants to dock in Spain in early August under similar circumstances.

Meanwhile, Mr Sánchez announced his intention to ensure that undocumented migrants received access to free healthcare and to take down the razor wire that covers fences surrounding the Spanish cities of Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa and which often causes injuries to migrants trying to scale them.


Just over 32,800 migrants have reached Spain since the beginning of the year, most of them by sea, according to the International Organisation for Migration.

But a series of other measures taken by the Spanish authorities over the summer have cast doubt on the notion that the country is maintaining a policy of tolerance.

Quicklime and faeces

In late July, 602 Sub-Saharan migrants managed to get over or through the Ceuta fence from Morocco, with some of them reportedly throwing quicklime and faeces at civil guards in order to reach Spanish soil.

Last week, 10 of those migrants were arrested on suspicion of assaulting police and belonging to a criminal organisation. Meanwhile, 27 others have been immediately sent back across the border to Morocco without going through the usual, often lengthy, legal process that new arrivals face. Another 110 migrants were returned to Morocco in a similar way in August following a mass scaling of the Ceuta fence.

“We’re not going to allow violent migration to attack our country and our security forces and agencies,” interior minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska said on Wednesday.The apparent toughening of the Spanish government’s stance has drawn fierce criticism from the left, which has also questioned the legality of the rapid returning of migrants to Morocco. Podemos, whose parliamentary support helped Mr Sánchez become prime minister, has accused him of losing his nerve once the challenges of governing became clear. “When it’s time to act, [the Socialists] are quick to disappoint,” said congressman Txema Guijarro.

‘Racist policies’

Podemos and others have said the Socialist administration’s approach to migration has become worryingly similar to that of the conservative Popular Party (PP), which governed before it.

Helena Maleno, a charity worker who helps migrants in Morocco, warned that the government had performed "a terrible shift towards racist policies".

But the political right is also denouncing the recent developments, insisting they are proof Mr Sánchez leads a weak government that is improvising policy.

The government demurs. “We haven’t changed [policy] one bit,” said deputy prime minister Carmen Calvo, who sought to draw a distinction between migrants rescued from the Mediterranean and those who attempt to scale the fences surrounding Ceuta and Melilla. The former, she suggested, deserved help but the latter were more of a threat to security.

But perhaps most worrying for Mr Sánchez is how Europe’s far right has responded to his government’s tougher stance of recent weeks.

"If Spain does it it's fine, but if I propose it then I'm racist, fascist and inhumane," Italy's anti-immigrant interior minister Matteo Salvini said.

Meanwhile, Alice Weidel, Bundestag co-leader of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), tweeted her admiration for Madrid's recent actions. "Spain shows how to deal with illegal immigrants!" she posted.

Guy Hedgecoe

Guy Hedgecoe

Guy Hedgecoe is a contributor to The Irish Times based in Spain