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Spain and Immigration:Lessons for Europe

The recent tragedy in Lampedusa Italy has brought Europe’s immigration difficulties to the world’s attention. The Italian government has received some serious criticism, but it is undeniable that undocumented migration affects Europe as a whole. While states without external borders have a different set of challenges before them, Spain is faced with similar difficulties to Italy. Migration to Spain occurs on a smaller scale, but instances of dangerous migrant crossings have been on the rise and authorities are concerned that these efforts are becoming increasingly perilous. With this is mind, it is worth comparing the situation facing Spain with the problems in Italy in order to determine how these countries’ circumstances and strategies have affected their experiences. While the Spanish experience illuminates some important differences, it also reinforces the fundamental source of undocumented migration into Europe and the need to move beyond a border security strategy based on fortification and exclusion.

One of Spain’s unique features is its distinct history of dictatorship lasting well past the fall of fascism in the rest of Europe. Until democracy emerged in Spain, it was a far less attractive destination for migrants than its European neighbours. As a result, the Spanish government’s approach to immigration and the sentiments of the Spanish people have been shaped by a unique history. This has tempered the xenophobia that underlies some of the political discourse surrounding immigration throughout the rest of the continent. Nonetheless, migrants face serious challenges and the Spanish government continues to manage and control the steady flow of people across its southern border.

Aside from its history, Spain also has some geographic characteristics that make it a unique case. While Lampedusa’s proximity to African shores make it a common destination for migrants from Libya, Spain’s territorial proximity is even greater. Mainland Spain is close to Morocco, but there are also two Spanish African enclaves, Melilla and Ceuta, that have also been a popular point of entry for those looking to enter Europe. Therefore, for Spain, border security cannot be reduced to a maritime issue and tragedies involving boats are coupled with dangerous attempts to gain entry over land.

Melilla and Ceuta are popular points of entry for those looking to enter Europe

Political differences between the Spanish and Italian experiences with immigration are pronounced as well.  Migrants to Spain often emanate from or travel through Morocco, while those entering Italy usually depart from Libya. Consequently, the Spanish and Italian approach to immigration depends upon their relationship with these different countries. Before the Qaddafi government was toppled there was an agreement between Italy and Libya that saw Libya receive migrants sent back after reaching Italian shores. This cooperation has since been made more difficult by the instability afflicting the North African country. Some suggest that this instability has also affected patterns of migration from Morocco to Spain. Beginning in 2006, undocumented migration decreased dramatically after Spain and Morocco began extensive cooperation. However, part of this strategy has involved a recent clampdown on sub-Saharan migrants passing through Morocco. Some observers suggest that this might be linked to regional instability and the Moroccan government’s desire to reinforce its power. While this cooperation has yielded results, there are concerns that the situation is pressuring migrants to adopt even more dangerous means of entering Europe, and this year the numbers of illicit crossings began to rise once again.

Despite these differences, the commonalities in these two countries’ experiences provide important lessons. By most standards, Spain has fared better than Italy in terms of curtailing immigration levels. Cooperation between Morocco and Spain has prevented large scale movements of people, and thus made mass-casualty tragedies less likely. But this does little to conceal the persistent pressure of migrants seeking to gain access to Spain and the rest of Europe.  Until this is ameliorated, the risk of another tragedy like Lampedusa persists throughout the Mediterranean.  Furthermore, North Africa is affected by any attempt to make it harder to cross the maritime boundary to Europe. The demographic and subsequent economic consequences of a tightened migration choke point on the North African coast would be potentially destabilizing. As a result, this problem will not be sustainably solved by shifting the burdens of migration management from the south shores of Europe to the north shores of Africa.

Instead, a more comprehensive approach is required, one in which western powers exert their influence to combat the push factors that fuel immigration while amending policies that might exacerbate the current situation. Libya and Mali, for example, are countries from which and through which many migrants travel. They have also been the sites of two recent western military interventions, the first of which left behind thoroughgoing instability. This illustrates how seemingly distinct foreign policy matters significantly impact migration and demonstrates the extent to which the west is already deeply involved.

To suggest that the flow of migrants north is a phenomenon visited upon Europe is entirely disingenuous. Western governments and businesses regularly involve themselves in the affairs of the global south. These countries cannot realistically expect to move their labour, money, militaries, and political influence throughout the world without poor populations in the global south reacting in kind with some mobility of their own. When this double-standard is applied to rich and poor, or north and south, the crux of the issue becomes apparent. Illicit migration from poor to rich countries is inextricably linked to international inequality, and any strategy – even one that pursues border security in tandem with economic development – that fails to address this is unlikely to effectively and sustainably balance the flow of populations across borders. This is true for Italy, Spain, the United States, or any other destination for people who are compelled by their circumstances to risk injury, arrest, or death in pursuit of a decent life.

Daniel Troup
Daniel Troup is a graduate of the Peace and Conflict Studies program at the University of Toronto’s Trudeau Centre. He has experience as a research assistant in the University of Toronto’s Department of Political Science and has most recently worked as a research associate for the UN-based Global Policy Forum. His research interests include the political economy of peace and conflict, Latin American and European politics, as well as international relations theory.