By Pat Rubio Bertran
While visiting Spain’s Torrejón Air Base at the end of August, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, praised Spain’s “humanity” and “solidarity” “in times of need” for coordinating the evacuation of the Afghans and their families that collaborated with the EU. The Commission President was not the only one to visit the Air Base. In less than five days, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, almost all of his ministers, and even the Spanish King visited Torrejón. Sánchez prides himself on heading the “most progressive government” in the country’s history, yet, as members of the Sánchez government were posting photos with smiling Afghan children, the Spanish military was pushing people back to Morocco after they said they wanted to seek asylum in Spain. At the same time, Fernando Grande-Marlaska, Sánchez’s Interior Minister, was pursuing his campaign of returning hundreds of unaccompanied children to Morocco with little regard for their rights under national and international law.
In addition to pushbacks to Morocco, over 2,000 people have died or gone missing whilst attempting to cross the Atlantic to reach the Canary Islands this year alone. Only in August, 12 people have died or gone missing every day in the Atlantic route. In the Western Mediterranean route, also to Spain, the number of dead and missing migrants has also doubled from last year, making 2021 the deadliest year in all migration routes by sea to Spain. However, these daily tragedies have largely been ignored by the Spanish government. What’s more, while the context demonstrates that more search and rescue capacity is needed, Sánchez’s “most progressive government” is slowly dismantling Spain’s public and civil sea rescue service, Salvamento Marítimo (Maritime Rescue, or “SM”).
This erosion of public rescue capacity has been accompanied by near radio silence from the Spanish government over the avoidable tragedies at its maritime borders. Arrivals by sea to Spain and deaths in the Atlantic and Western Mediterranean routes are barely present in mainstream Spanish media nor official government channels. For example, the official SM channels no longer publish any news or updates on migrant rescues and fatalities.
SM is unique as the only public and civil agency in the EU with an exclusively rescue-oriented mandate. While all states are obliged to carry out search and rescue, this is usually done by coast guards which operate primarily under security or military mandates. In Spain, the Guardia Civil (Civil Guard), the paramilitary police, is tasked with maritime policing while SM covers search and rescue. This role should be protected and used as an example across Europe. Yet, the Sánchez government is attempting to militarise this service and refusing to increase its capacity, with deadly consequences.
The first change implemented by Spain’s “most progressive government” was to hand over the coordination of sea rescue services to the Guardia Civil. According to SM employees, the paramilitary’s lack of maritime rescue experience has negatively affected their work. For example, since coming under the coordination of the Guardia Civil, there have been delays in rescues and disembarkation that unnecessarily increase the risks of a distress case becoming deadly. SM workers have formed a union, CGT Salvamento, through which they have not only denounced the agency’s militarisation but have also demanded more personnel and resources to keep up with the increasing number of distress cases on the Atlantic and Western Mediterranean routes.
CGT activist Manuel Capa recently described how the current government is reducing personnel and cutting resources, saying: “we are fewer units and our colleagues are suffering, both physically and mentally, to face the increase in arrivals and deaths”. Capa explained in a radio interview how, by increasing the number of boats and crew, migrants would be rescued more rapidly and deaths would be reduced dramatically. To highlight how such simple steps could be decisive in avoiding tragedy, CGT activists have taken to social media with the hashtag #MásManosMásVidas (more hands to save more lives). The union’s official channels are also one of the few sources that regularly provide updates on the situation at sea along Spain’s southern borders.
Militarisation and attempts to dismantle SM are a part of a strategy of deterrence that aims to make it harder and riskier for migrants and refugees to attempt the journey to Europe. As politicians such as von der Leyen praise Spain for its “solidarity” with the Afghan people, I wonder if they are thinking of the thousands of Afghans left abandoned in dire camps and borderlands across Europe or pushed back to Turkey. Or the thousands Europe has returned to Afghanistan while deeming the country “safe”. While standing in “solidarity” with Afghanistan in “times of need”, Spain and the EU have not only failed to evacuate everyone who worked with them but are also using a potential increase in Afghan refugees to justify building more walls, implementing “security” measures, and signing bilateral agreements with third countries to stop Afghans from reaching Europe.
This same border externalisation policy has produced dangerous deals with Morocco, Turkey, Libya, and Niger, and has resulted in, among others, the return of tens of thousands of people to torture and inhuman treatment in Libya. It has been demonstrated time and time again – at Europe’s Mediterranean, Atlantic, and land borders – that these policies do not stop people from attempting the journey, but instead simply make it deadlier. While people in Afghanistan and those dying and disappearing in the Mediterranean might seem geographically distant, their lives and rights are being endangered by the same exclusionary and deadly policies.
At Torrejón Air Base, von der Leyen said Spain is “an example of the European soul at its best”. Indeed, Spain’s approach reflects that of Europe: a paradox of PR promises on humanitarian leadership while people are left to die. We cannot normalise these deaths nor this structural violence. Instead of perpetuating Europe’s colonial history of obsessively controlling the movement of populations, a truly progressive government would invest in transparency, demilitarisation, search and rescue capacity, and safe and legal pathways to seek asylum. It would also investigate all shipwrecks to ensure justice and truth for the families and communities of those who die and go missing. In the current context, it is hard to imagine this happening.
Instead of remaining powerless in the absence of “political will” however, we can act: as activists, NGOs, and academics, we must refuse to continue to speak about these tragedies as accidents. Death at sea is the direct consequence of hostile and securitised policies. If we are to stand in solidarity with those whose rights are systematically violated, it is imperative that we report from Spanish and EU borders in a way that not only brings tragedies to light but also exposes them as the product of calculated decisions. While continuing to normalise deaths at sea, Europe’s governments should be reluctant to call themselves progressive.
The views, information, or opinions expressed in the blog post are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Refugee Rights Europe and its employees. Refugee Rights Europe invites a spectrum of viewpoints to feature on its blog in order to highlight different aspects of the human rights crisis facing refugees and displaced people in Europe, with the hope of generating discussion conducive to constructive solutions.