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The Guardian | 02.07.2018

Happy scenes in Valencia have been followed by relentless task of coping with new arrivals 

When it finally crawled into Valencia on a hot Sunday morning two weeks ago, the Aquarius rescue ship and the 630 people it had pulled from the waters off the Libyan coast were met by 400 interpreters, almost 2,000 Red Cross workers and a huge banner reading: “Welcome home” in five languages.

Also there, drawn by the latest irresistible visual metaphor for Europe’s migration crisis, were hundreds of journalists from across the continent and beyond. Word had it there was at least one member of the media for each of the rescued people.

Father Gabriel Delgado followed the developments in the saga from the port city of Cádiz, 500 miles to the south-west, with an uncomfortable mixture of happiness, frustration and anxiety.

“The Spanish government’s actions when it came to the Aquarius were good given all that’s happening in the Mediterranean right now,” said the priest, who has worked with migrants and refugees for 25 years.

“You can’t let people die and that’s why we needed that symbolic act of humanity and solidarity from the government. But the Aquarius also showed us what needs to be done in terms of intervention and reception. And that isn’t happening here.”

In June alone, almost 6,800 migrants and refugees reached Spain by sea, more than the total combined number of those who arrived in Italy (3,136), Greece (2,077) and Malta (224). To put it another way, Spain has taken in the equivalent of 11 Aquariuses over the past four weeks.

Last Saturday, the mayor of Barcelona announced that the city would offer safe harbour to 60 people saved by the Spanish rescue charity Proactiva Open Arms after the ship was turned away by Malta and Italy. A day earlier, 100 migrants are feared to have drowned off the Libyan coast after an apparent mix-up between different rescue agencies.

Mass arrivals on Spain’s southern coast are hardly a new phenomenon; almost three decades have passed since the country was first shocked to find dead migrants washing up on its shores.

But recent weeks have once again revealed the enormous gaps in Spain’s migrant reception infrastructure, with a desperate shortage of accommodation and growing pressure on centres for unaccompanied minors.

“If they’d had the foresight to build a centre in all the years that have gone by, we wouldn’t have men, women and children – including babies – sleeping on the floors of sports centres in different cities, in the waiting room at Algeciras port or in police stations,” said Delgado. “This is a really awful situation.”

His words echo those of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, which has repeatedly warned that Spain is facing “another very challenging year” and lacks the resources and capacity to deal with the surge.

The local paper has been even more laconic. One of its front page headlines this week read simply: “Overwhelmed.”

The Tartessos centre, a reception facility run by Catholic charities in a working-class Cádiz neighbourhood, is full to capacity.

Teenage boys and young men from sub-Saharan Africa sit on the steps opposite the football pitch while they wait for a meal. Inside, the chef has finished peeling a huge pile of potatoes and has meat in the oven and a vegetable stew on the hob. Lunch for the centre’s 46 guests will be served in shifts in the small dining room.

While he cooks, staff talk to two recently arrived Bangladeshi men, who tell them they were tortured and starved by people traffickers, while a shy teenager from the Gambia awaits the result of a bone test to confirm he is a minor.

Some of those being looked after at the Tartessos centre find it easier to describe their journeys to Spain than others. A Cameroonian man recounts the two years he spent travelling through Nigeria, Niger, Algeria and Morocco and shows the scars, cuts and weals that cover his 18-year-old body.

A 15-year-old from Guinea has lost track of the time he spent trying to reach Europe. His travels, including a near drowning off the Moroccan coast, are reduced to a straightforward piece of subtraction: “There were three of us when we left Guinea and I’m the only one left.”

Last week, Spain’s new prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, was asked whether the country would take in more Aquariuses.

“We’re taking them in on a daily basis,” he told the Guardian. “They’re just not called the Aquarius and they’re little boats. It may not be as striking as a boat drifting in the Mediterranean, but it’s the reality of what we’re seeing on the coasts of southern Spain on, sadly, a daily basis.”

Sánchez said Spain’s migrant reception capacity was under pressure but praised the maritime rescue service and NGOs for doing an extraordinary job.

“Where we need help is with economic resources to improve and widen these capacities,” he said. “But what’s fundamental is the need to come up with measures on development, dialogue, cooperation and improving things in the countries of origin and countries of transit.”

As well as backing EU plans for migrant “control centres” across the bloc and “processing centres” in north Africa, Spain recently announced moves to extend public healthcare to foreigners without residence permits. It is also looking at removing the razor wire that tops border fences in the two Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta in north Africa.

Delgado welcomes the Spanish initiatives – “I’ve seen what the wire does to people: it doesn’t cut you; it rips you.” But he is concerned by the talk of “arrival platforms” and “closed centres”, which remind him of the CIEs (foreign internment centres) that he knows well.

“I’ve served as a chaplain at the CIEs and it broke my heart every week when I went. They should not exist. Migrants who arrive have committed an administrative offence by arriving in Spain without the necessary documentation but they’re being locked up in a place that’s guarded by police and which, in many cases, has bars. They’re being detained.”

As director of the diocese of Cádiz and Ceuta’s migrant assistance foundation, the Everyone’s Land centre, Delgado is used to the rare moments that focus the world’s attention on the plight of migrants and refugees.

There was one when the body of two-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach in 2015 and another, rather more fleeting, when Samuel Kabamba, a four-year-old from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was found dead on the shore near Cape Trafalgar 17 months ago.

And yet despite the praise that has greeted Spain’s acceptance of the Aquarius and the Proactiva Open Arms vessel, the priest worries about the “ill winds blowing round Europe” these days.

It is not just the language of Italy’s far-right interior minister or even the steady creep of what Pope Francis once termed the “globalisation of indifference” on the issue of migration.

“I think that what we’re seeing now is not the globalisation of indifference; the danger is the globalisation of rejection and xenophobia,” he said. “It’s Europe renouncing its traditions and its finest values.”

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