[…] More than 200 people have died on the Western Mediterranean route between Morocco and Spain in 2019, including at least 22 on 19 June. Spain’s maritime rescue service, Salvamento Marítimo, pulled almost 300 migrants and asylum seekers from a total of eight more boats on Saturday and Sunday.
Human rights organisations and some members of Salvamento Marítimo argue that at least some of the deaths in the Western Mediterranean could have been prevented. They accuse the Spanish government of a lack of support and resources after a recent decision to overhaul who is responsible for rescues in the sea between Spain and Morocco.
According to Spanish government figures, more than 60,000 people crossed irregularly last year to Spain. While the number of arrivals is far lower than that seen by Greece and Italy in the past years, for Spain they represented a significant increase.
The same figures show a sharp drop in the number of arrivals in February this year, after the government’s new rescue policies came into effect. Still, in a recent report by cabinet advisors to the Spanish prime minister, the government noted that it expects 2019 arrivals to be higher than last year. […]
The change in policy
Leading up to national and European elections earlier this year, the ruling centre-left PSOE party unveiled a new strategy aimed at reducing arrivals.
The plan involved shifting control of sea rescue along the southern border to the Guardia Civil, Spain’s military police. Salvamento Marítimo would no longer actively patrol the stretch of sea between Spain and Morocco, and only rescue when called to do so.
Ships belonging to the rescue service, which had been brought to the southern border in 2018 to help with the surge in arrivals, were moved to other parts of the country; the Spanish planned to rely more on Moroccan coast guards to intercept migrant vessels before they could reach the Spanish rescue area.
Meanwhile, Salvamento Marítimo’s social media accounts, which in the past had documented every rescue the agency engaged in, would stop routine announcements.
In February, Salvamento Marítimo’s security and safety committee discussed plans to move four mid-sized rescue ships out of the Sea of Alborán, where most rescues take place, according to a leaked internal report seen by TNH. The document explained that a larger ship, the Clara Campoamor, would be responsible for rescues in their place.
Employees at Salvamento Marítimo told TNH they worry that one ship isn’t enough for such a long stretch of coast, and recalled times when their ships were called to locate a boat full of migrants but ordered not to rescue them. “The idea is that, if anything serious happens, we’ll rescue,” explained Furió. “But otherwise we wait for the Moroccans to come.”
Capa explained further: “We leave, we find the boat, and then wait one or two miles away, waiting for the Moroccans to come and rescue. If their motor is working, they’ll start coming towards us, and we’ll avoid them and head north towards Spain.”
Outsourcing rescue operations
The changes in the Spanish government’s migration policy were announced at a closed-door meeting in Madrid in mid-March.
According to three people present at the meeting, the then-director of Salvamento Marítimo, Ignacio Lopez, explained them to a group of representatives from NGOs working along the southern border.
“The operational philosophy on the southern border has changed,” López told the group, according to the three sources TNH spoke to, all of whom insisted on being quoted on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the information.
Months earlier, the European Commission had approved a €148 million payment to support Moroccan border management, as the Spanish government unrolled its new strategy.
Since then, Moroccan police have been accused of violently raiding migrant camps along the country’s northern border, and internally deporting people to the southern and eastern edges of the country. At a June press conference in Rabat, Morocco’s foreign minister claimed that its police operations have halved the number of arrivals to Spain, but would not comment on what happened to migrants who were turned back.
Spain’s reliance on Morocco to enforce its border is part of a growing trend that has seen the EU outsourcing its migration control policies, from Libya to Turkey to Niger.
„As Spanish rescue policy changes, warnings over migrant drownings“