More than 1,200 African migrants have landed in Spain on rubber rafts or flimsy boats in recent days. Many of them are women and children, now in Red Cross shelters packed beyond capacity. At one such facility with 500 beds, there are 1,200 temporary residents.
It's been the biggest mass migration push into Spain in decades.
Spain is the closest European country to Africa; just 9 miles of choppy waters separate Spain's southern tip from Morocco, at the mouth of the Mediterranean. It also has Europe's only land borders with Africa, at two Spanish territories called Ceuta and Melilla on the North African mainland, bordering Morocco.
Ceuta and Melilla's fortified frontiers are the scene of frequent clashes between Spanish border guards and African migrants fleeing war and poverty — desperate to reach Europe. Many are from sub-Saharan Africa and travel across the entire African continent — stopping to work odd jobs along the way, to pay smugglers to help them cross each border. For some, the journey takes years.
It's a similar drama to the one that plays out on the U.S.-Mexico border, where thousands of people, many of them small children, alone, make a dangerous journey north to escape conflicts in Central America.
Among those arriving in Spain this week was a months-old baby girl, discovered alone in a flotilla of inflatable rubber rafts intercepted by Spain's coast guard. She's being taken care of by Red Cross staff who named her "Princess" and are searching for her parents.
The recent influx of African migrants into Spain is thought to be because of unusually calm waters this week in the Strait of Gibraltar, the narrowest point between Africa and Europe. It's also after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which ended in late July. Muslim migrants have finished fasting and have begun anew their journeys northward.
But it's also because of an apparent security lapse on the Moroccan side. On Wednesday, Morocco's interior minister admitted to what he called "dysfunctions" in the Moroccan coast guard, which usually patrols the coast, stopping boats filled with migrants taking off toward Spain.
According to aid workers, some of the migrants who landed in Spain this week have said the Moroccan patrols simply disappeared Monday and Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Spain has sent an additional 500 border guards to the area.
In addition to this week's arrivals by sea, some 1,600 migrants have tried to scale fences that separate Morocco from Spain's North African enclaves. Many of them couldn't get across, since Spain recently fortified the fences with anti-climbing mesh.
But on Wednesday, about 80 men managed to climb it, and got stuck atop a three-story-high fence, with border guards watching below, poised to grab them. After more than 10 hours in the August heat, they were helped down to safety — dehydrated and weak, but alive.
What happens to the migrants once they arrive in Spain depends largely on their nationalities. If they're Moroccan, Spain deports them back immediately.
But the majority of Africans arriving in Spain are from sub-Saharan Africa. Many of them get rid of their identity cards and papers on their long trek across the Sahara, or throw them into the Mediterranean, so that Spanish border guards can't tell where they're from. Others refuse to speak, so that authorities can't hear their accents or languages.
If Spanish authorities can't figure out where a migrant is from, he can't be deported. If a woman gives birth in Spain, she can't be deported without her infant — who has residency rights. As a result of this policy, many of the flimsy rafts that land on Spanish shores are laden with pregnant women hoping to give birth on Spanish soil.
Aid workers and advocates for asylum-seekers in Spain predict that the flow of migrants won't lessen until politicians address the problem of gross economic inequality between Africa and Europe. That's a daunting task, especially amid Europe's economic crisis.
Spain's economy is no longer in recession. But the unemployment rate remains at 26 percent; it's more than 50 percent for people in their 20s. Young college graduates in Spain are competing for unskilled jobs in restaurants or in construction for which, a decade ago, they would have been over-qualified. And now there's an influx of African migrants joining that applicant pool.
Spain doesn't have an influential far-right anti-immigration movement in politics like some other European countries. But racism has nevertheless spiked amid the economic crunch and arrivals of many Africans.
Like many other southern European nations, Spain's tactic so far has been to try to tamp down those arrivals by fortifying its borders. But Amnesty International recently criticized Madrid for spending 30 times more on border security than on aid to asylum-seekers.
Spain has also asked the European Union for help, saying this is not the responsibility of front-line countries — it's a European issue.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
We've reported a lot on this program about thousands of people, many of them small children alone, taking a dangerous journey north to escape conflicts in Central America to reach the United States. Now, a story not all that different is playing out in another part of the world. Spain has seen a spike in migration from Africa recently, and Lauren Frayer, who reports for NPR from Spain, is on the line with us from Madrid. Lauren, good morning.
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Good morning.
GREENE: So how many people are arriving in Spain, and who exactly are they?
FRAYER: Well, we've seen more than 1,200 people arrive in rubber rafts, makeshift boats this week, and they're mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, although they do depart from Morocco. They've traveled a long time. Many of them stop and work along the way, then pick up the journey again and often pay smugglers to help them cross those borders. So for many of the migrants, this is a journey that takes years. For example, one couple I met who've arrived in Southern Spain - they left as a couple from Nigeria three years ago, and they arrived with a family of three kids. These are not just young people; these are families.
It's a huge wave of sort of all of humanity fleeing African wars and poverty. And thankfully with the arrivals this week, no one died because even with calmer waters this week on the Straits of Gibraltar in the Mediterranean, it still can be a dangerous journey, especially in homemade rafts. And dozens of people do die every year.
GREENE: OK, so a dangerous journey, say on rafts. And we should just sort of orient people here. Once they actually make the crossing to Europe - this is happening from Morocco which is very close to Spain.
FRAYER: That's right, so Spain is the closest European country to Africa by sea. There's just nine miles of water that separate Spain's southern tip from Morocco. And from the Moroccan side, that proximity is pretty alluring. Europe, with its promise of jobs or refugee status, looks and actually is very close.
Now, there's also a land route between Africa and Spain. There are two Spanish city-states called Ceuta and Melilla. They're on the North African mainland bordering Morocco, and they're sort of colonial relics. But they're nevertheless Spanish soil. So if someone's able to cross from Morocco into one of those two territories, they've all the same rights as if they have landed in continental Europe. You don't need a passport to take a ferry from there to the mainland Spain or elsewhere.
So these territories are surrounded by huge fences, similar to what you might see along parts of the U.S.-Mexico border. And yesterday, more than 1,300 Africans tried to storm those fences. Many of them couldn't get across because Spain recently fortified the fences with anti-climbing mesh, but some did. And 80 men ended up stranded on top of a three-story-high fence - sitting on top of it with Spanish border guards watching them below. And now all of this played out on my TV. Spain was really transfixed by this all, and after 10 hours - this is in the heat of August on the edge of the Sahara - border guards and aid workers managed to get them down. They were dehydrated, frightened but OK.
GREENE: Then, Lauren, what happened to these 80 men once they were rescued from the top of this fence?
FRAYER: So like all migrants, it largely depends on their nationality. If they're Moroccan, Spanish authorities send them back immediately. But the majority of Africans coming across to Spain are from sub-Saharan Africa, and they're sent to Red Cross shelters. Just to give you an idea of what the situation is like there this week - one of those shelters with 500 beds has 1,200 people in it right now. Legally, if Spain can figure out someone's home country, it can deport them. So many migrants have told me that they throw away their identity cards or refuse to speak so that authorities can't tell which language they speak and therefore where they come from. Often a huge proportion of the women coming across are pregnant. And that's because if they give birth in Spain, the baby has certain residency rights, and authorities won't split mothers from children.
GREENE: All right, we've been talking about a wave of migration from Africa into Spain with reporter Lauren Frayer in Madrid. Lauren, thanks very much.
FRAYER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.