Spain feels the heat as migrants shift route into Europe

Askanda Fopa Ponye was jubilant this week as he stepped off an orange rescue ship, one of the latest arrivals amid an intensifying wave of migrants that propelled the shortest route from Africa to Europe into the most popular one.

The 24-year-old Cameroonian survived a 9-month trip across the African continent and a 10-hour overnight ordeal on the Mediterranean, paddling north from Morocco in a fragile inflatable boat that he bought along with seven other people.

As he and 74 others finally disembarked in Algeciras, Fopa Ponye carried nothing but his wet clothes, his determination to find a job in Barcelona, and a message for government leaders who want stricter policies to curb the numbers of those seeking a better life in Europe.

"Migrants are not coming here to do bad things. I don't come here looking for trouble," Fopa Ponye said, with the British outpost of Gibraltar and its famous Rock towering across the bay and nearby luxury yachts.

The 17,781 people who have made it to southern Spain so far this year outpaced the arrivals by boat to Italy (16,452) or Greece (13,120), according to the latest U.N. refugee agency figures. Of the 972 who lost their lives at sea, nearly a third (292) died trying to reach Spain, the UNCHR said.

And although the numbers of economic migrants and asylum-seekers in Europe are declining overall from the peak levels of 2015, the renewed popularity of the so-called Western Mediterranean route is straining Spain's law-enforcement response and its social safety networks.

With police stations and juvenile facilities overflowing in Cadiz, Spain's southernmost province, authorities are setting up makeshift housing in sports facilities, rented hostels or even ferry terminals.

On Tuesday, the day Fopa Ponye was rescued, the sports complex in Tarifa held more than 600 people, some having come all the way from Bangladesh or Sri Lanka. Women, some of them pregnant and others with newborns, slept on a basketball court, sharing it with dozens of unaccompanied teenagers.

By Wednesday, authorities stopped receiving more people in Tarifa, and a new facility had to be opened in the nearby coastal town of Barbate. There were moments of tension Thursday when dozens of Moroccans stormed an exit and managed to escape police.

Spain has bilateral agreements with Morocco, Algeria and other African countries to return their nationals, making it nearly impossible for any arrivals from there to get asylum. But most sub-Saharan Africans and others arriving in the country are given an expulsion order that authorities are rarely able to execute.

Most are released and continue north into France and beyond. Among those who stay — awaiting asylum and unable to work — a small number receive public assistance for up to two years. But many end up homeless or at the mercy of criminals. Local governments, especially in cities like Madrid or Barcelona, offer them limited accommodation and assistance, relying frequently on charities.

Activists and NGOs say the approach needs to be rethought. The early summer surge in arrivals coinciding with calmer waters in the strait — nearly 5,000 by boats since June 11, according to the International Organization for Migration — is exposing Spain's response as ill-equipped, underfunded and too reliant on improvisation.

The increase also comes as a divisive debate over migration has re-emerged in Europe. An EU summit on Thursday and Friday in Brussels by the 28 leaders of the bloc is considering the central role of Spain as a bridge with countries that are a source or transit point in the migration routes.

Cooperation deals offering funding and training to coast guards and security forces to Senegal, among others, were seen as keys in 2006 to reduce a wave of nearly 32,000 arrivals in the Canary Islands.

But Spain's approach also has been marred by an asylum system that accumulates more than 43,000 unsolved petitions — last year 4,670 people were granted protection — and controversial, on-the-spot returns of migrants caught entering the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in northern Africa.

The Rev. Joan Buades, a Jesuit priest who visits migrants weekly at some of the detention centers known as CIEs, said that "Spain's past experience should be seen as a showcase of the challenges that lie ahead for the European Union, rather than a path to success."

The Associated Press was denied access this week to visit CIEs in Tarifa and Algeciras, the latter a former prison that Spain's Ombudsman Office said should be closed due to poor conditions. Run by Spain's police with little public supervision, these centers also seem to be models for similar facilities being proposed either on European soil or abroad.

Jose Villahoz, head of the local NGO Algeciras Acoge, said the EU shouldn't be looking for ways to deprive migrants of their freedom.

"If the rights of the nationals of the transit countries are not even respected, it's going to be even worse for those coming from sub-Saharan countries," said Villahoz, adding it was "deplorable to make those countries in northern African responsible" for the migration flows into Europe.

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has said he will look into how to improve the CIEs, but there are no plans to close them.

After winning praise earlier this month for taking in 629 migrants on the Aquarius rescue ship that Italy and Malta rejected, the new center-left government is under pressure to deliver an equivalent response to the arrivals on the southern coast, where similar numbers are seen almost daily.

Sanchez also is anticipating a further flow into Spain by pitching the message in Brussels that the EU has failed to help Italy and Greece in the migration crisis, and that the Mediterranean coasts should be handled by the bloc.

But the European debate feels far away in the EU's "south of the south," as Villahoz calls the neglected Andalusian coast. Instead, all eyes are on negotiations with Morocco, which many in Spain blame for opening or closing the valve of departures from its shores, ahead of talks with the EU on fishing, agricultural and other topics.

On Thursday, Sanchez sent Spain's interior and foreign ministers to Morocco for meetings with their counterparts. Sanchez himself is planning a visit this summer.

Khalid Zerouali, Morocco's director of migration and border surveillance, said his country is under new pressure amid the clampdown on the route between Libya and Italy.

He also said in an interview with the AP that Morocco isn't interested in trying to determine which migrants are eligible for asylum in Europe. The plan to make such decisions in some African countries is being discussed by the EU as one way to tamp down arrival numbers.

"That's not the solution," Zerouali said, because people often use the North African kingdom as a departure point for Spain, adding that about 25,000 migrants have been stopped this year.

Buades, the Catholic priest, says Europe should explore policies that favor legal migration while rethinking the overall asylum system and the treatment of arrivals.

But that is difficult in the current climate, he added.

"The Europe that we live in has dived into a populist and xenophobic discourse that makes it nearly impossible to improve the current system," Buades said.