Caught unprepared, Spain sends migrant arrivals to unfinished prison. Politicians, unions and NGOs criticize decision to use penitentiary as a temporary holding center
The arrival of hundreds of illegal immigrants on the southeastern coast of Spain late last week caught authorities unprepared. Faced with a lack of proper facilities, the Interior Ministry on Monday transferred a group of around 500 immigrants to a penitentiary still under construction in Archidona (Málaga), where they received food, water and medical assistance.
“This is a much better solution that setting up a campground,” said sources at the Interior Ministry, insisting that the move is temporary.
But the use of this facility as a “provisional” migrant holding center has triggered an outburst of criticism from non-profit groups, unions and political parties.
The Socialist Party (PSOE) and the leftist Unidos Podemos called the situation “illegal.” And the regional government of Andalusia, run by Socialist premier Susana Díaz, warned that a prison “is not the right place” to keep migrants.
Around 30 non-profit groups have filed a complaint with the Ombudsman’s Office, including SOS Racismo, Andalucía Acoge, the Pro-Human Rights Association of Andalusia (APDHA) and the Jesuit Service for Migrants.
The Popular Party (PP) government said on Tuesday that it has a legal report backing the move. The document references a European directive that, it argues, contemplates the option of sending illegal migrants to a prison facility “when it is not possible to provide accommodation in a specialized center.”
Hundreds of migrants began landing on the coasts of Murcia and Almería on Friday. Two days later, police officers showed up before a judge in Vera (Almería) with 10 undocumented migrants that they had intercepted at Los Muertos beach in Carboneras, inside the Cabo de Gata natural park.
The judge’s report states that officers requested authorization to transfer the migrants to the Archidona facility. The lawyer representing the group told EL PAÍS that neither he nor his clients were informed that they were going to be kept inside a prison, and said he would request their release because of what he considers “an illegal act.”
On Sunday morning, the Spanish secretary of state for security, José Antonio Nieto, telephoned the mayor of Archidona, Mercedes Montero, to tell her that the Interior Ministry was going to use the new prison facilities as a migrant holding center “exceptionally and provisionally.”
“He told me the migrants would arrive soon, but did not specify a date,” said Montero. On Monday, 464 immigrants were brought in. “I called him again and he admitted that the first [people] should not have arrived until Tuesday, but things were speeding up.”
Because the facilities still lack a kitchen service, the ministry sent in 2,000 food rations on Tuesday, as well as thousands of bottles of water because the tap water at the penitentiary is still not fit for drinking.
Also on Tuesday, two doctors and two health technicians were dispatched to the site. Red Cross personnel are expected to join them in the coming days to provide medical backup.
The Archidona prison is scheduled to open in January. The ministry insisted that inmates and undocumented migrants will not be held at the facility at the same time.
Spanish legislation sets a maximum holding period of 60 days for illegal migrants. The network of holding centers in Spain, known as CIEs, has regularly come under fire from non-profit groups that say living conditions there are subpar.
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 8,162 people landed on the shores of the Iberian Peninsula last year. In 2016, the number of migrants who made the dangerous sea journey doubled compared to 2015, according to the IOM.
According to Interior Ministry figures seen by EL PAÍS, 89.9% of interns last year came from Africa, compared with 4.3% from the Americas, 3.3% from Europe and 2.5% from Asia.