On a recent Wednesday morning, Montee Thompson sat on the edge of a concrete planter box outside the central bus station in this coastal town in southern Spain, where palm trees dot the landscape and, during the summer months, tourists come by the busload to sun themselves on the beach. The 36-year-old was unsure of where he was, or what he should do next.
Originally from Liberia, Thompson had arrived in Spain the previous weekend, having traveled from Morocco in a small rubber boat carrying 15 other men. The group spent nearly a full day adrift at sea before the Spanish coast guard found them and brought them ashore in the coastal town of Algeciras. Members of the Red Cross briefly examined them before turning them over to the police.
Three days later, Thompson was released and put on a bus destined for Malaga with 54 other men, all of them recent arrivals from different parts of Africa. Their bus arrived in the middle of the night. The men had no contacts in Malaga, yet they were told to disembark and weren’t given any further instructions.
By the time I met the group the following morning, they had been wandering around the bus station for more than 12 hours. They didn’t have food or money. Most of their phones were dead after their long journeys at sea, and they had no way to charge them. “We are still here because we don’t know where to go,” a man from Guinea said. “The police told us that maybe an NGO would come and get us, but so far no one has come.”
The men are not alone in having chosen Spain as their gateway to Europe. Some 2,000 other migrants arrived in the country the same weekend they did. According to the International Organization for Migration, more than 22,500 migrants reached the Spanish coast by sea in the first seven months of this year—more than in all of 2017. Another 307 have died trying. As Italy’s populist government continues to pursue hard-line anti-migrant policies, Spain has recently replaced Italy as the top destination for Europe-bound migrants.
The uptick has roughly coincided with the early days of Spain’s new socialist, center-left government led by Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who was sworn into office in early June. Sanchez came to power after a corruption scandal triggered a no-confidence vote that ended the tenure of his predecessor, Mariano Rajoy, from the more conservative People’s Party. He lost no time setting himself apart from Rajoy on a number of issues, perhaps most prominently immigration.
In June, Sanchez announced that he’d bring back free health care for undocumented migrants, which the previous government had slashed as a cost-cutting measure. He also said he would remove razor wire from fences dividing Spain’s North African enclaves, Ceuta and Melilla, from Morocco. The razor wire is a controversial deterrence tool that has injured many migrants attempting to climb into Spanish territory.
In public statements, Spain’s new government has rejected the term “mass migration”—a phrase that has fueled the rise of populist, anti-migrant parties in other parts of the continent, and that is increasingly being deployed by opposition parties in Spain. “We are trivializing the term ‘mass,’” Josep Borrell, the new foreign minister, said during a press conference in July by way of explaining the government’s position.
But the biggest move, in terms of its symbolic power, came in late June, when Sanchez announced that Spain would accept 629 migrants and asylum-seekers who had been stranded at sea for days aboard the Aquarius, a rescue ship operated by the charities SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders. The ship had previously been blocked from docking by the governments of Italy and Malta. Upon arriving in Valencia, the migrants were greeted by translators, lawyers, trauma experts and medical personnel. They were also given special 45-day residency permits to use while their asylum applications were fast-tracked. The story made headlines around the world, earning Sanchez praise from human rights activists and international aid groups.
There are indications that Sanchez intends to go further in his promotion of migrant-friendly policies for Spain and Europe at large. In early August, he signed a bilateral agreement with German Chancellor Angela Merkel that calls for his government to take back migrants who, after applying for asylum in Spain, traveled on to Germany. He has also joined Merkel in pushing for more EU resources for the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, which is intended to address “root causes of irregular migration.”
While Sanchez’s stance may appear exceptional in the current political climate, he is merely following in the footsteps of past leaders of his Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, known by its Spanish acronym, PSOE. At the same time, the party’s approach to the issue is more nuanced than recent media coverage has indicated, reflecting the intricacies of Spain’s history and domestic politics.