Spain turns to Africa, lobbying for NATO, allies over Ukraine-driven migration

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  • Spain is hosting the NATO summit this week
  • Spain is likely to push for more shared intelligence, sources
  • Families making dangerous crossings from Africa to the Canary Islands
  • Morocco curbs migration after agreement with Spain
  • Migrant deaths in Melilla highlight dangers, NGOs say

MADRID/LAS PALMAS, June 27 (Reuters) – Spain is shifting its foreign policy to Africa while enlisting EU and NATO support to combat migration from the continent, which is being exacerbated by the invasion of Ukraine, two senior officials have said Government officials and two diplomatic sources told Reuters.

Spain will use a NATO summit in Madrid this week to advance its case and is likely to call for increased sharing of information by the alliance, including on migration-related issues, the diplomats said.

Even before Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine, Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez had revived a strategy mothballed by previous governments of working with African partners to stem migration and address causes like instability and climate change, two officials close to him said.

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That drive has now gained urgency, they added.

“We strive for good relations with all neighbors around us and together we are tackling phenomena that no one, not even the most powerful country in the world, can deal with alone,” Spain’s Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares told Reuters. He didn’t want to give details.

Spain, its southern neighbors and EU officials are increasingly concerned that a hunger crisis, exacerbated by the disruption to Ukraine’s grain exports, will trigger chaotic migration from the Sahel and sub-Saharan regions of Africa, numbers that are already rising this year will, the sources said.

At least 23 migrants died on Friday after clashes with Moroccan security forces as around 2,000 people attempted to enter Spain’s North African enclave of Melilla. Morocco has tightened containment measures in recent weeks following Spain’s new diplomatic approach. Continue reading

Migration by sea to the Canary Islands, another risky but popular entry point to Europe, rose 51% year-on-year between January and May this year, Spanish data shows, with the busiest time of the year still to come.

Graphic: https://tmsnrt.rs/3bg1xAm

Spain is used as a gateway to Europe by migrants from other continents, including Africa and Latin America. Though largely a transit country, previous surges in arrivals have put severe pressure on its frontier resources.

Albares said the new strategy, which Sanchez has used to visit nine African countries since last year, is designed to keep migrants out of harm’s way.

“We cannot allow the Mediterranean and the Atlantic to become giant mounds where thousands of people die every year just striving for a better life,” Albares said.

But human rights groups and migration advocates say Spain’s push to outsource enforcement puts vulnerable people in the hands of security forces in countries that have a history of abuse and tough policing.

The deaths in Morocco “are a tragic symbol of Europe’s policy of externalizing EU borders,” groups including the Moroccan Human Rights Association and Spanish migration organization Walking Borders said in a joint statement on Saturday.

Sanchez’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

INTELLIGENCE SHARING

In a sign of its growing concern, Madrid hopes to get a pledge at the NATO summit for better monitoring of “hybrid threats”, including the possibility of irregular migration being used by hostile actors as a political pressure tactic. She will also work with NATO to provide resources to secure the Alliance’s southern flank. Continue reading

Madrid will ask NATO for “joint information sharing”, including on migration issues, a senior Spanish diplomatic source and an EU diplomat have said. This could formalize and expand existing intelligence cooperation.

At the summit, NATO will step up cooperation efforts with southern countries and agree on a package for Mauritania to help “fight against terrorism, control borders and strengthen its defense and security,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said over the weekend El País newspaper.

The expanded NATO presence could help Mauritania, which works closely with Spain, coordinate with other countries in the Sahel, said Felix Arteaga, senior defense analyst at Madrid’s Elcano Institute, a think tank.

Foreign Minister Albares declined to give details on how NATO might expand its operations in Africa.

Nato sources and academics are signaling that Spain’s proposals will face opposition amid conflicting needs from countries like Russia’s vulnerable neighbors in the Baltic states. Continue reading

Spain says Russia’s growing influence in unstable countries, including the Central African Republic and Sahel’s Mali, risks fueling insecurity in southern Europe. Continue reading

Citing the presence of Russian military companies in Mali, the blockade of grain exports from Ukraine and Moscow ally Belarus’ policy last year of allowing migrants into the EU, Madrid says President Vladimir Putin can use migration and hunger as part of his war effort .

“Putin wants to use the food crisis to orchestrate a repeat of the migration crisis of the magnitude we saw in 2015-16 to destabilize the EU,” a European Union official told Reuters.

Moscow denies responsibility for the food crisis and blames a rise in global prices on Western sanctions restricting its own grain exports.

The Russian Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

FUNDING FOR THE SAHEL

In recent weeks, Sanchez has held a series of bilateral meetings with heads of state and officials from Nigeria, Morocco and Mauritania to discuss economic cooperation, human trafficking, border control capacity-building and the fight against terrorism.

In June, the government submitted a new development law to parliament to direct funding to the Sahel. The legislation would mean a significant expansion of existing migration control funds to eight African countries.

Italy has also tried to garner support, as the government previously hosted a gathering of southern European nations to push for post-Ukraine migration policies that spread arrival numbers more evenly across Europe. Continue reading

People are already on their way. Data from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) shows that emigration from Sahel-Niger increased by 45% in the first four months of this year, and from neighboring Mali it has doubled.

The increase has not yet translated into arrivals on European shores.

A Reuters review of data from Europe’s border and coast guard agency Frontex showed the number of migrants arriving in the Canary Islands from Africa’s Sahel region, including Guinea, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, in the first five months increased in 2022 compared to the same period last year.

Whole families are increasingly traveling to the Atlantic islands in fragile inflatable boats from the south like Senegal and Guinea, citing insecurity, climate change and more recently high food prices, said Jose Antonio Rodríguez Verona, a Red Cross official in the Canary Islands.

Morocco remains the largest country of origin and transit for migrants to Spain, with record numbers of Moroccans reaching the Canary Islands in January and February this year.

However, according to Frontex figures, in March and April these figures fell by 85% compared to the previous two months after Spain changed its policy on disputed Western Sahara to align with Moroccan stance. Albares has directly attributed the decline to the change in policy.

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“I want to thank the exceptional cooperation we have with the Kingdom of Morocco,” Spanish Prime Minister Sanchez said Saturday after the deaths in Melilla, which he attributed to trafficking gangs.

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Reporting by Belen Carreno, Joan Faus and Borja Suarez, additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels, Emma Farge in Geneva, Ed McAllister in Dakar, Ahmed El Jechtimi in Rabat, editing by Aislinn Laing and Frank Jack Daniel

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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