At least five people have lost their lives trying to reach the Canary Islands in the last weeks. Rescue activity continues with more than 470 people arriving in February. Morocco continues to play a key role in Spanish and European Union border management despite fears of a lack of regard for refugee rights. A judge from Ceuta has ruled that 14 minors expelled to Morocco in August 2021 have the right to return to Spain. The Spanish Government plans to amend the law on asylum to speed up asylum procedures at the borders of Ceuta and Melilla.

For the first time in 2022, a new record of four consecutive days of no arrivals to the Canary Islands was registered between 14-17 February. This was however only a brief lull in a frenetic rescue period: more than 470 people have arrived on the Canaries’ coasts over the last two weeks. On 11 February, Salvamento Marítimo (SM, the Spanish government’s rescue service) rescued a total of 290 people on board six small boats. In the following days, rescue missions brought 56 people, then 40 people, then with 31 people.  40 of the 58 people rescued from a small boat on 18 February required medical assistance for minor burns. On 21 February, a group of 40 people was rescued off southern Morocco by the Moroccan authorities. After nine days lost at sea, two people had died on board and at least eight others had to be transferred to a hospital. Another boat, sank on Wednesday 23 February near the Western Saharan coast. Three people drowned and 47 others were rescued by Moroccan authorities. A search operation has been launched in the area to try to find possible survivors.

The Canary Islands currently receive almost the 75 per cent of the irregular entries to the country, with 4,753 arrivals out of a total of 6,347, as of 13 February. Landings in the Canaries have so far soared by 125 per cent this year compared to the same period of 2021, and quadrupled compared to that of 2020. Moreover, unprecedented trends have been observed as regards the departure of boats, with many arriving from southern Morocco or western Sahara, a territory controlled by Moroccan security forces. Regardless in the difficulties in controlling the vast territory, a Spanish security source assured that “no one leaves Morocco if [Moroccan authorities] do not them want to”. On 21 February, European Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson met with Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares on the “need to work closely with partner countries of origin and transit”. However, unlike in other countries such as Senegal, Mauritania and Gambia, the Moroccan authorities do not allow Spanish agents on their territory to collaborate with local security forces against irregular immigration. With little or no room for manoeuvre in the country of origin, Spain is totally dependent on Morocco’s willingness to cooperate. After a “conversation” between the Spanish president Sanchez and the Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Burita at the EU-AU summit, the former stressed the need to “make progress in the strategic relationship” between both countries.

Morocco has become an important focal point in the European efforts to externalize “migration management”. As such, the north African country has long benefited from the EU’s financial support and still preserves a privileged position as part of the Mobility Partnership Agreement of 2013: since 2014 the EU has given Morocco one billion euro in support of its National Strategy on Migration and Asylum (NSIA). Despite the money invested, only 1,400 migrants have received protection, pre-departure and reintegration assistance. Moreover, the Global Detention Project’s report from July 2021 accused Moroccan authorities of, inter alia, using police stations and ad hoc facilities with poor conditions for immigration detention purposes, of detaining vulnerable children and refugees, and of engaging in summary expulsions.

On 17 February, an investigating judge in Ceuta ordered that a group of 14 minors who were expelled from Ceuta in August 2021 be returned to Spain. The minors were part of the nearly 2,000 children and adolescents who entered the autonomous city in mid-May 2021. The expulsion, led by the Government Delegation but sponsored by the Ministry of Interior, omitted “all legal procedures”, “violated the fundamental right to physical and moral integrity of the minors” and placed the returnees in a situation of “relevant risk”, according to the judge. In the two rulings, which are open to appeal, the judge has confirmed that none of the necessary safeguards were respected during the expulsion. “There was no initiation of proceedings, no request for reports, no pleadings phase, no hearing, no evidence phase, not even a decision to repatriate the minors” the ruling said. This overturns a hackneyed argument of both the Ministry of Interior and the Government of Ceuta, who claimed that the expulsions were covered by the 2007 agreement between Spain and Morocco on “cooperation in the prevention of the illegal migration of unaccompanied minors”. The judge recalled that the agreement obliges “the strict observance and compliance with Spanish legislation” to activate the return of unaccompanied children to their countries of origin.

The Spanish government is considering amending the law on asylum so that all asylum requests registered in Ceuta and Melilla can be processed in a maximum of ten days. The aim of this legal change is to swiftly return all those denied protection, and allow for the rapid identification and reception of asylum seekers who do meet the requirements. This would be done by applying the so-called ‘border procedure’ already used in airports throughout the territory of the autonomous cities. This obliges the authorities to admit or deny requests for protection in four days, extendable to a maximum of ten. During this time, applicants are held in detention. If the request is admitted, the applicant can move freely throughout Spanish territory while awaiting the decision. If the request is rejected, the law provides for the immediate return to the country of origin or transit.

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This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.