MADRID – Spain's new center-left government unveiled a series of measures Friday to "put people's rights first" in the country's migration policies.
The Spanish cabinet took the first steps toward extending public health care to foreigners without residence permits, Education Minister Isabel Celaa announced, saying the government would have a decree ready in six weeks.
Celaa also said the government planned to assess how to remove — "without losing any security" — the barbed wire capping the border fences of Ceuta and Melilla, the two Spanish enclaves in North Africa. Those fences are often stormed by scores of migrants trying to reach Spanish territory from Africa.
Friday's moves — along with Spain's welcoming of the Aquarius, a rescue boat carrying hundreds of migrants that was refused entry by Italy and Malta this week in the Mediterranean — showed a sharp break between new Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and his predecessor, Mariano Rajoy, whose conservative administration had a stricter approach on migration.
Rajoy had blocked free health care for some migrants in 2012 as a cost-cutting measure. His government also refused to remove the barbed wire border fences criticized as cruel and inefficient by rights groups.
"You can have security in your borders without having to harm people," Celaa said, adding that Sanchez's Socialist-led government "is going to put people's rights first."
The Aquarius rescue boat is expected in the Spanish port of Valencia on Sunday.
Tens of thousands of people from Africa, the Mideast or Asian countries flee violent conflicts or extreme poverty each year by attempting perilous journeys to Europe in smugglers' dinghies across the Mediterranean.
On Friday, Spain's maritime rescuers pulled around 270 migrants and three bodies from more than 30 boats in the Gibraltar Strait, while helicopters and rescue vessels looked for at least three more migrant boats.
The Western Mediterranean route into Spain has seen an uptick of arrivals, with nearly a third (11,792) of the 35,455 migrants rescued or making it to European shores in the first five months of 2018 according to U.N. figures. At least 792 migrants have died crossing the seas to get to Europe this year.
"Europe needs to keep in mind that Ceuta and Melilla are common borders of the bloc and that migration needs to be dealt with in countries of origin and transit," Celaa said.
She also said the European Union, whose 28 leaders will be discussing migration at the end of the month, needs a "wake-up call" on the topic.
Spain's main civil guard union welcomed Friday's announcement that the barbed-wire might go away, but said more border agents, more vehicles and better surveillance technology was also needed.
Celaa said the government didn't believe its new policies would encourage more migrant arrivals because they are on the move anyway to escape poverty and violence.