Wishing You Many Hot Returns

On a weekend when high EU representatives were decrying the violation of “European values” through the mass-arrests of journalists in the European continent’s southeastern corner, in Turkey, as we can read from Mathieu de Taillac in Le Figaro the very same sort of thing was happening in its southwestern corner – that is, in Spain, and therefore in what is already a member-state.

“Spain, the only land frontier between Europe and Africa, feels abandoned by an EU which is quick to give lessons.” Yes, that “land frontier” does exist, namely at Ceuta and Melilla, which are two small enclaves of Spanish sovereignty on the northern coast of the African mainland that have managed to survive there over the centuries. They are both marked off from surrounding territory by no less than three lines of barriers with surveillance cameras (as well as, if we are to believe the account in this article, “razor blades” – de lames de rasoir).

The thing is, these enclaves’ presence also means that if illegal immigrants somehow manage to get past all those barriers – and around 28,000 have accomplished that over the past ten years – then in effect they have successfully made it into Europe. According to current Spanish legislation, they have the right to request asylum and get free legal help to help the pursue that. In the meantime, they of course get to stay in “Europe” because their asylum case is being decided – it can take a long time – and who knows?, maybe they’ll ultimate get it.

This has been a big burden on the Spanish authorities, who you might recall are in any case having to cut down on government expenditures in connection with the public debt crisis. And they expect the pressure at those land borders to get even worse, unless (according to an estimate from the Spanish newspaper El País) they put out another €140 million for further investments to make those borders truly impassable.

You have to think that this essentially means something like another Berlin Wall – which, after all (together with similarly deadly obstacles all along what used to be the inter-German border), was rather efficient – although not perfect – in throttling people’s movement. But that’s not really “European values,” you’d have to say.

So last Friday the Spanish lower house went with another solution: las devoluciones en caliente, perhaps best translated as “hot returns” – “return” as for example when you go to the store to return a gift you don’t like. What that means here is no more right to request asylum once you hit Spanish soil – instead, the police are henceforth to have the power, after apprehending illegal immigrants, to basically dump them back over the border for the authorities there (Moroccan) to worry about. Sure, they can then try to brave the three lines of obstacles (with razor blades) again, but only to be thrown back – like a fish you’ve caught which the law says is too small to keep, say – once again. (Since both Ceuta and Melilla are small, it’s probably hard to hide, especially when thousands are trying the same thing.)

Too Hot for the Left

These “hot returns” also violate “European values,” or at least that is the viewpoint of the Catholic Church, of Spanish human rights NGOs, and even mostly of the country’s Left (which, however, currently is not in the political majority these days). Whether it does so in the opinion of the EU we don’t yet know: there has been no pronouncement yet, officials there are probably still busy with Turkey. Keep in mind as well that this legislation still has to pass the Spanish Senate, so it is not (yet) official.

What are the Spanish authorities supposed to do? They are rather resentful as it is of what they perceive of the lack of understanding, not to mention of financial assistance, coming from EU institutions; the Interior Minister, Jorge Fernández Díaz, has publicly asked for critics of this measure to send him their addresses “so I can send these poor people off to them.” It would seem that the alternative would indeed have to be something deadly, like a Berlin Wall – or else, of course, opening the floodgates to many more thousands of immigrants to come try to find asylum in Spain – true political poison. (Lately centers intended to house asylum-seekers in Germany have tended to mysteriously go up in flames, for example.)

Of course, Spain also has to deal with asylum-seekers taking the direct route to the mainland by boat, although that requires some equipment and seamanship, and it is at the borders of Ceuta and Melilla where their main problem lies. Perhaps they could simply abandon those enclaves and fall back on the water barrier of the Strait of Gibraltar! But no state likes to give up territory, of course . . .

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