In the frame of increased cooperation with Morocco, Spain reduces rescue operations in the Med and pushes migrants and refugees to attempt more dangerous journeys.

In their efforts to half the number of irregular arrivals in Spain, Spanish authorities only rescue in national territorial waters, transferring responsibility for Moroccan SAR zone to the Moroccan Royal Navy, which takes the rescued migrants back to their departure. As another part of the policy change, maritime authorities no longer actively search for boats in distress but only leave from their bases if they have been alerted, which could lead to delayed assistance for migrants in distress.

Prior to 2019, Spain was known for its extensive lifesaving operations in the Mediterranean. Fulfilling its obligations under the Search and Rescue Convention, 50,000 people were rescued by Spanish maritime authorities, a third of which in the Moroccan SAR territory. After Italy closed its harbours in 2018, the migratory route through Morocco into Spain recorded 65,000 irregular arrivals. In response, the Spanish government of Pedro Sánchez changed their Search and Rescue (SAR) approach in the Mediterranean and increased cooperation with Morocco to curb irregular arrivals. Until August 2019 arrivals dropped by a 39% compared to the same period in 2018.

“The Spanish sea rescue was a flagship model for the whole of Europe,” states the Spanish Commission for refugees (CEAR). According to CEAR, an increased death rate of migrants at sea shows that the new strategy is failing. In June, 22 people drowned along the western route.

Morocco received €140 million from the EU and an additional €30 million from Spain to control its borders and conduct rescue operations in the Mediterranean. Moroccan security forces intensified the number of raids, forced transfers and deportations. Rabat and Madrid also reactivated a bilateral agreement that allows quick returns of migrants to Moroccan territory. As a result, people resort to new routes, which are longer, harder, more expensive and more dangerous.

According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), until mid-August, 208 people died or disappeared during the crossing to Spain, that is one out of every 100 people who attempt the journey.

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Photo: (CC) José Saéz, July 2012

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