Spanish port of Bilbao a new ‘Jungle’ for UK-bound migrants

Security tightened around terminal in bid to thwart increasingly ‘desperate’ stowaways

The civil guard presence at Bilbao ferry terminal has been increased to control stowaway attempts. Photograph: Guy Hedgecoe

The civil guard presence at Bilbao ferry terminal has been increased to control stowaway attempts. Photograph: Guy Hedgecoe

 

As he sips a coffee in the Portugalete district of Bilbao, Arben, a young Albanian man, explains that the English word “ferry” is almost exactly the same as the word for “hell” in his native language. The irony is not lost on him. A few hundred yards away, where the Nervión river opens out onto the Bay of Biscay, is Arben’s current home: a small tent pitched near the port. It is the base from where, each day, he attempts to stow away on vehicles that are boarding ferries bound for the UK.

For him, the idea of reaching England is heaven. But getting there is hell.

“In England there is work. I would have a house, everything – it would be good for me,” he says, in a mixture of broken English and Spanish.

“In Albania I have nothing – no work, nothing,” he adds. “In Albania if you have no work, you’re dead.”

Britain’s high wages and low jobless rate of about 4 per cent are a draw for migrants such as Arben. Although the Spanish economy is growing, its unemployment rate remains above 16 per cent, making it a stepping stone, rather than a final destination, for many of those seeking a better life.

Arben, who prefers not to give his full name, left Albania last year, hitchhiking to Germany, from where he says he took a bus to Spain. He has been living in the tent for seven months, enduring one of the harshest winters northern Spain has seen in recent years.

“It’s cold. It rains,” he says. “Last week it rained too much.”

He has come tantalisingly close to realising his dream. On one occasion he hid undetected for four days inside a lorry, which eventually boarded a ferry and took him to Portsmouth. But on arrival the British authorities found him. A bite on his arm from a sniffer dog was his only souvenir before he was sent straight back to Spain.

A civil guard checks a lorry boarding a ferry for the UK for stowaways. Photograph: Guy Hedgecoe
A civil guard checks a lorry boarding a ferry for the UK for stowaways. Photograph: Guy Hedgecoe

Since the Calais migrant camp known as the “Jungle” was dismantled in 2016, Spain’s northern ports have become a new route to the UK. The busy nature of Bilbao, which is Spain’s fifth-biggest port and has a regular ferry service to Portsmouth, has made it a prime departure point. Last year the Spanish civil guard thwarted 3,800 stowaway attempts.

Popular Bilbao

Alarmed at the increasing popularity of Bilbao among Syrians, Afghans, Albanians and others, this year the authorities have built a 4m-high wall, topped by barbed wire, around the perimeter of the car park for vehicles carrying cargo. They have also increased the civil guard’s presence in the port.

“We’ve started a new procedure, checking every truck,” says Vicente, a civil guard stationed in Bilbao’s port who prefers not to give his full name. “We also check the surroundings and there are more personnel working here now.”

Nearby, a lorry about to board the ferry comes to a halt and two civil guards check it. One of them looks underneath the vehicle, while the other inserts a small device beneath the awning of the trailer, to measure the amount of carbon dioxide inside. If the level is higher than normal, they assume someone is hiding inside and open up the trailer to look.

Nobody is aboard this lorry. But Vicente explains that 11 would-be stowaways have already been found that same morning. One of them, a Moroccan man, was found balanced on the axle between the wheels of a lorry. The others were all Albanian.

He recalls how they found one man who had packed himself tightly into a wooden box a few days earlier. When they pulled him out, he could hardly stand up.

If a stowaway reaches the UK and is detected, the ferry company involved faces a €3,000 fine. The drivers of vehicles used by the migrants can also come under suspicion of trafficking.

Second try

So far this year, just over 1,000 attempts have been stopped. Yet the numbers can be misleading. In Spain, stowing away on vehicles is deemed an infraction but not a crime, therefore almost all the migrants who are caught are removed from the port area and released, only for them to try again the next day. The civil guard says that only a few dozen migrants, most of them Albanian, are carrying out the vast majority of attempts to reach the UK. The sheer number of unsuccessful attempts by those such as Arben reflects how hard it is.

A cruise liner arrives at the port of Bilbao. Photograph: Ander Gillenea/AFP/Getty Images
A cruise liner arrives at the port of Bilbao. Photograph: Ander Gillenea/AFP/Getty Images

“It’s not easy, there are too many of us [trying],” says another Albanian man who sleeps in a tent on a hill above the port, from where he can watch the movements of the civil guard. He and another man have only been here for three days, but they are pessimistic.

“It doesn’t look like we’re going to have a chance [of reaching the UK],” he says, in fluent English. He spent several years working as a carpenter in London, but after returning to Albania for a visit, he was not allowed back in to the UK.

Arresting suspected traffickers

Despite the Spanish authorities’ apparent tolerance of the migrant camping sites around the port, the civil guard have carried out a number of arrests of suspected people traffickers, most recently in March. Civil guards who work in the port insist that although those who camp out appear to be travelling unaided, understanding the port’s logistics is difficult without the knowledge of traffickers.

But local people who have been helping the migrants over the past year, giving them food and tents, insist that in this case, traffickers aren’t involved.

“Mafias move people using planes and apartments,” say Merce Puig, of Ongi etorri Errefuxiatuak (Refugees Welcome). “But nobody spends months living in a tent because of a mafia. Mafias don’t work with tents – the kids we help are not with mafias.”

Puig says that she and other volunteers started helping the migrants about a year ago, seeing their gesture as a stopgap measure until the local authorities stepped in.

“But not only did they not do anything, they spent a load of money on a wall,” she says. “And they didn’t spend a penny on the migrants.”

The newly built wall and increased security around the port seem to have been effective. The numbers of migrants being caught are on average lower than they were in the last few months of 2017. But in the same way that the closure of the Calais Jungle camp brought migrants here, the clampdown in Bilbao is sending migrants elsewhere along the coast, to cities such as Santander.

“It’s very difficult to get into the UK from here, so they are moving to other ports,” says Vicente, the civil guard.

“They are desperate,” he adds. “Really desperate.”

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