Table of Contents


1.0        Introduction. 4

2.0        Illegal Migration to Spain. 5

2.1        Maghreb and sub-Saharan  immigration. 6

3.0        Measures taken to fight illegal immigration. 7

3.1        High-Tech Border Control 7

3.2         The Integrated System of External Vigilance (SIVE) 8

3.3        Bilateral Agreements with Morocco, Senegal and Mauritania. 10

4.0         Conclusion and Recommendation. 11





How Spain is Fighting Illegal Immigration


Over the last two decades, Spain has transformed from a country of emigrants to a country of immigrants. Majority of the immigrants come from the Latin America, Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa as well as the Eastern Europe. The routes from the Maghreb and Sub-Saharan Africa are the main pressure points when it comes to illegal immigration. Immigrants who enter Spain are either economic immigrants or those freeing conflict zones. While Spain is also a destination of the immigrants, it is also a gateway to the rest of Europe courtesy of the Schengen treaty. This report, therefore, evaluates the measures put by the Spanish government to fight illegal immigration.  


1.0 Introduction        

Fighting illegal immigration is one of the pillars of Spain’s migration policy. The other two pillars are adapting immigration to fit the labour market and promoting the social integration of migrants (Tedesco, 2010). This report focuses on the strategies that Spain is using to fight illegal immigration. First of all, Spain has experienced an extra ordinary trend when it comes to migration. Not so long ago, Spain was a country of emigrants. The trend has changed in the last two decades. Over the last 10 years illegal immigrants trying to enter Spain either through the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla or the Canary Islands have been on an upward trend. Majority of illegal immigrants come from Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe. Two routes – the Western African route and Western Mediterranean route – have been marked by Frontex (2015) as pressure points for illegal entries to Europe. The Western African route is the sea route from north-western Africa to the Spanish Canary islands. The Western Mediterranean route marks the number of immigrants who enter Spain from Africa through the Spanish cities of Cueta and Melilla (Broeders and Engberson, 2013). According to Frontex data, the number of illegal immigrants to Spain through the Western Africa route tripled between 2014 and 2015. The same data shows that illegal immigrants entering Spain through the Western Mediterranean route went up as well in the same period. The data shows that if the sub-Saharan immigrants are not scaling the six-meter fence built around Ceuta and Melilla, they are trying to enter the enclaves through false documents.

Illegal immigration is not only a concern to Spain; it is also a concern to Europe. In the wake of Schegen agreement, resident of European nation have the freedom to move across borders without restraint. As such, illegal immigrants to Spain have an easier access to other European nations. It is for this reason that sub-Saharan migrants and the other migrants find Spain as the gateway to opportunities in Europe. Spain is therefore regarded by Europe as the guardian t its southern border. The war on illegal immigrants to Spain is however not lost. Recent efforts made by Spain, with the support of the European nation have kept the number of illegal immigrants comparatively low. Some of the strategies that the country has employed include border patrol, cooperation with Morocco, installation of a SIVE maritime surveillance system along the Southern border and strengthened border checks. Other measures that the country has adopted include signing of a bilateral agreement with Mauritania and Senegal and opening of legal routes of entry to dissuade migrants from using undesignated routes. Other strategies like rejection at the border, and the agreement with Morocco to return illegal immigrants have raised human rights concern. Spain strategies can be summarised as geared towards deterrence, exclusion and expulsion where the need be.  

2.0  Illegal Migration to Spain


Like all other Southern nations, migration to Spain is a recent phenomenon. In the turn of 1980s, Spain was transformed from an emigrant country to an immigration country. This transformation was characterised by a number of factors. Common among these factors is a period of sustained economic growth spurning from 1980s up to the recent 2008 economic recession. The other factor is an aging demographic. During this period, Spain was described to have been immigrants tolerant although the first two factors have a huge bearing on how Spain turned from an emigrant nation to an immigrant nation. The period of economic growth was fuelled by sectors that were dependent on intensive manual and un-skilled labour. Considering that at the same time Spain was experiencing an aging population, welcoming migrants was the only option that the country had to offset the labour deficit. It is therefore telling that during this time, the country maintained an open policy where it welcomed workers from North Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe. Typically, the workers came from Romania, Morocco, Colombia and Ecuador (Fuentes, 2000).

It is this background that characterised Spain’s migration policy. Like Mahia et al (2010) analyses, Spain migration policy has evolved from a legal basis of entry and stay, went through social integration on presumption that immigration would continue and then finally to the present status of restriction. In the first phase of evolution, perhaps marking how immigration was a non issue, the policy was only concerned with public order and immigrants human rights. The social integration aspect of the policy aimed at according immigrants access to local resources and rights.

But even with this evolution, this report can miss a critical point if it fails to mention regularisation of immigrants. This is more so because regularisation can also be termed as a strategy to fight illegal immigration. In regularisation process, Spain has on many occasions invited undocumented immigrants to apply for work or residence permit (Barrero and Witte, 2007). This process seeks to give undocumented immigrants an opportunity to incorporate with the formal labour market by opening the doors for residence and employment rights. This process is kind of an amnesty similar to the one carried out in other countries such as Portugal, Italy and Greece. Until recently, Spain had been responding to illegal immigration by giving one amnesty after another. Whereas Spain did this owing to the socio-economic going on at the time, regularisation, to some extent is seen to have encouraged illegal immigrants on hope that one day they will be regularised.

The present phase of Spain Immigration policy is where the country has adopted more restrictive measures to control irregular flow of immigrants. This is partly due to the EU pressure that occurred after the adoption of the Schengen treaty. This treaty removed border controls on travel between signatories of the Schengen states. Like the European Council, explained,  the free movement within the territory of the Schengen members is “a freedom which as a counterpart requires not only the strengthening of the common external borders and the administration of third country nationals, but also enhanced co-operation between law enforcement authorities of the Schengen states” (2003, p.32). European Commission further criticised the regularisation program claiming that “regularisations should not be regarded as a way of managing migration flows ... [they should] be avoided or confined to very exceptional situations” (Menz and Caviedes, 2010, p.241). It can therefore be concluded that Spain adopted restrictive measures largely to conform to the EU directives on Schengen treaty. In this situation, Spain is regarded as the guardian of the EU southern border.

2.1  Maghreb and sub-Saharan  immigration


Though illegal immigrants to Spain come from a wider region including Latin America and Eastern Europe, Western African route and Western Mediterranean route are the main pressure points. The Western Mediterranean route sometimes is more preferred because it is the only area with land boundary between Europe and Africa. The strait of Gibraltar that separates Spain from Morocco is only 12 km. These are the routes used by migrants from Maghreb and Sub-Saharan region of Africa. Maghreb typically denotes the North African region that includes countries such as Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. The Sub-Saharan region is wide composing of countries such as Burkina Faso, Equatorial Guinea, Ghana, Nigeria, Mali, Sierra Leon, Liberia, Cameroon, Angola, Kenya, Senegal, Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea Bissau, Ivory Coast and Guinea.

Most of these Africans trying to enter Spain are driven by a myriad of factors. Most of them are economic migrants trying to free the harsh economic climate in their region. Others are driven by insecurity in their home countries. Some of the countries are either experiencing civil strife or the countries are under despotic rulers. As they try to enter Spain, either as the final destination or using it as the gate way to Europe, the migrants are under conviction that they will find employment opportunities or be safeguarded by the democratic regimes in Europe.  As such, owing to the harsh economic climate, oppression by rulers and conflicts in their zones immigrants treat entering Spain as a matter of life and death.

From this background, the migrants are willing to put their life in line in quest of entering Europe. Thus, despite the strict surveillance, and the dangers posed by the journey from the Maghreb or Sub-Saharan to Spain most of the illegal immigrants have made a resolve to take the risk. Each year, thousands of illegal immigrants are smuggled into Spain in the back of trucks or hidden in secret compartments under cars or in their trunks. Others manage to cross the border by scaling a huge double fence – patrolled by border guards- that separate Morocco from the Spanish enclave of Ceuta and Melilla. Others take the risky route of swimming from shore to shore. But the most common transportation method is fable and dangerous boats called pateras (Gonzalez, 2012). Some of these boats have capsized causing deaths. In some cases, altercation between would be immigrants and border guards has not been smooth. In 2014 for instance, 15 African who were trying to swim across the shore died when patrol guards fired rubber bullets at them in the water resulting in a human rights outcry. Border guards have noted a new trend where illegal immigrants trying to enter Spain from Morocco are being smuggled in on the back of jet skis. The immigrants go through the potentially dangerous journey which is often undertaken in the cover of darkness. This trend is risky because the pilots dump the immigrants into the water several meters to the coast. When spotted by coast guards, the pilot can even dump their passengers in the middle of the voyage. 


3.0  Measures taken to fight illegal immigration

Spain has adopted a raft of measures to control illegal immigration. As mentioned earlier, these measures include border patrol, installation of the SIVE maritime surveillance system along the southern border and bilateral agreements with Senegal and Mauritania. The country has also strengthened border checks at the main ports. 

3.1  High-Tech Border Control

On top of the fence that separates Morocco from the Cueta and Melilla enclaves, Spain has also installed a state of the art surveillance system (SIVE) along the southern border. This is on top of a high presence of guards to patrol the border. The fence, though, and the SIVE work in different ways and therefore merit distinct discussion.

As early as 1993, Spain started fencing the enclaves of Cueta and Melilla with the stated goal of controlling irregular migration. Over the years, the Spanish government, with the support of the European Union, has been reinforcing and renovating the fences to make it hard for immigrants to cross over. A description of the situation of the fence can be obtained from the European Commission report presented in 2005. According to the report, “the external land border of Melilla is characterised by an approximately 10.5 km double border fence divided into three sectors. The outer fence has a height of 3.5 metres; the inner fence reaches 6 metres in some places” (European Commission, 2005, p.70). Both of the fences are equipped with barbed wire to make crossing difficult. In addition, the fences are equipped with 106 fixed surveillance cameras, microphone cable and infrared surveillance. The external border fence of Cueta has a 7.8 km of double border fence that is divided into three sectors. In addition, the fence is manned by close to 400 policemen and over 700 Guardia Civil officers. In addition to the surveillance system installed along the Melilla fence, Cueta fence has 37 movable cameras. Helicopters are also used to patrol the border fence.

Although the fences have succeeded in becoming a physical barrier, they were criticised for failing to bring down illegal migration. Each year, a number of to be illegal migrants try to scale the fences. Few succeed- with injuries- while others are rescued and deported. The fence, by far, is deterrence but it has elicited other views. Whereas the stated purpose of the fence is curbing illegal immigrants, others have had a different interpretation. According to critics, the fence has a hidden agenda of achieving a “fortress Europe” (Saddiki, 2017). It does not help that the location of the fence marks different opposites. Where the fences are built is the boundary between the rich Europe and poor Africa, between the Spanish Christians and Muslim Moroccans as well as between the north and the south. It is also notable that Europe has taken major steps to ensure that Spain is sealed off from Africa. It raises concern that EU is the main financier in constructing and maintaining the fences. As such, Ceuta and Melilla fences are no longer viewed as Spain-Morocco border but as EU-African border. The border is therefore seen as to be reinforcing the idea of “us” against them. But even without looking at the fences with that critical view, it is observable that as states continue to construct walls along their border, illegal immigrants are continually devising new ways, though dangerous, of reaching their destination.

            3.2 The Integrated System of External Vigilance (SIVE)

The challenges with the fences, like the one discussed above is that they can only be effective in land boundaries. The challenge with Spain is that large part of its southern border is a maritime border. This forced the Spanish government to come up with a more innovative way of controlling illegal immigrants. This is how the government decided to install the Integrated System of External Vigilance (SIVE), bearing also in mind that beside the closure of the Cueta and Melilla borders, migrants started arriving to the country through the Mauritania and Senegal to the Canary Islands. In addition to the shift of the routes, more migrants continued to reach Spain through Small boats carrying about 100 immigrants. Due to their size, such boats were relatively difficult to detect. As a result, the Spanish government resolved to install the SIVE to monitor its border. First of such a system was installed to monitor the Strait of Gibraltar. Although installing such a system was costly to the Spanish tax payer, the government justified its implementation on the ground that SIVE had a human face. Beside the system being able to monitor incoming boats, it is also in a position to detect boats under distress and therefore can be relied on rescue missions. In addition, the European praised the technology for its ability to control the southern border.

It is important to understand how SIVE works. The SIVE is basically an advanced surveillance system with the ability to detect an approaching vessel 10 to 25 kilometres from the shore. It works with fixed and mobile sensors such as radars, infrared cameras and video cameras that are able to detect any oncoming vessel. The system is operated by the Guardia Civil which is a combination of military and civilian police. Once a vessel is detected, it alerts the control centre which can follow it by remote control of the sensors. The effectiveness of the system is that it can tell the number of the occupants when the vessel is about 5 kilometres to the shore and the duration that the vessel will take to arrive. This allows the control centre to mount interception mechanism like preparing the boats, helicopters and the cars. Such a preparation enables the authority to apprehend the migrants and take them to a reception centre. The beauty of this system is that it enables the authorities to prepare to apprehend the migrants several hours before the vessel reaches the shore. After the SIVE succeeded in Strait of Gibraltar it expanded it to cover east and west coast as well as the Canary Islands.

 Unfortunately, more installation of the SIVE system has been forcing illegal migrants to shift to other routes with less surveillance. For instance, after the first installation of the system, smugglers shifted from Andalucian coast to Canary Islands and from the Strait of Gibraltar to the westernmost part of the Mediterranean Sea. To cover all these routes, Spain will have to spend a significant budget though the EU is constantly stepping in to support. It is also noticeable that smugglers are adapting to the increased surveillance by deploying larger and faster boats. The shift of the routes and the adaptation therefore means that the problem of undetected migrants will still persist. In addition, the high-tech surveillance may force smugglers to use longer and dangerous routes. In effort to beat the surveillance, smugglers may end up risking the lives of the immigrants.

In such outcome, the important question is whether the SIVE has succeeded in fighting the illegal immigrants. Credit to the system, it has excelled in detecting and apprehending. But after detection and apprehension, a problem still persists (Carling, 2007). Apprehended immigrants may apply for asylum. Those who do not qualify have to be deported back to their country. In most cases, t is not easy to identify the country from which the migrant came from. Spain has had a bilateral agreement with Morocco to host the deported immigrants, but this agreement has not been successful. This means that the immigrants are held in the reception centre until the 40 days provided by the law expires. Once the 40 days expire, the migrants have to be released.

3.3  Bilateral Agreements with Morocco, Senegal and Mauritania.

Despite Morocco contesting the occupation of Spain on Cueta and Melilla enclaves, the two countries have entered a number of bilateral agreements to stem illegal flow of immigrants. Morocco is an important country in fighting the illegal migration because a significant proportion of migrants who try to enter Spain do so through the country. Part of the agreement is for Morocco to strengthen its security measures to stem illegal immigrants flowing from its side to Spain. Morocco has also collaborated in safeguarding the fence along the Cueta and Melilla border as well as patrolling the Mediterranean Sea. In addition to such measures, Morocco has also agreed to readmit, on a case-by-case basis, some of the African immigrants who arrive in Spain through its route. In exchange of this cooperation, Morocco has also benefited from having some of its residence being allowed temporally stay in Spain and free trade in region neighbouring Cueta and Melilla.  

Other countries that have entered into bilateral agreement with Spain include Senegal and Mauritania. These two countries became important after smugglers shifted their routes close to their coast to reach the Canary Islands. Mauritania, for instance has been provided with financial and technical support to enable it control its coast. In addition, these bilateral agreements are also an attempt by Spain to reach out to immigrants countries of origin. From these arrangements, Spain is focused on providing a legal route for the migrants to reach Spain in exchange of the originating countries cooperation to fight the illegal migration.

Part of the agreement is a Spanish labour plan that provides for a legal route to would be immigrant to reach Spain. The plan is accompanied b a one year working permit. In this approach, Spain hopes that illegal immigrants would be dissuaded from embarking on the long and dangerous route to reach Spain and instead wait for their turn to be recruited to the plan. Through the program, the Spanish government aims at recruiting hundreds of Senegalese workers into its labour market under a renewable one-year visa and jobs.  The ultimate goal of the program is to recruit thousand immigrants’ workers and discourage illegal immigration. In return, the Spanish government expect Senegal to cooperate in the fight against illegal migration. This is just an example of relationship with a country that is geared towards solving the problem of illegal immigrants. Similar pacts have been entered with other countries such as Mauritania and Gambia. In Gambia for instance, Spain is financing the training of workers who will be in turn recruited to work in the country under similar program.

Such an approach can be lauded as an advanced thinking in terms of migration control (Urban, 2015). It creates a win-win formula. However, looking at the program critically, it is doubtful how many job opportunities Spain can provide against the need of the Maghreb and sub-Saharan countries (Arango, 2013). The few job opportunities that the program is geared towards creating cannot satisfy the high number of economic migrants. More importantly, some of the illegal immigrants are not only freeing harsh economic climate back home; they are also freeing conflicts like the case of Mali. But credit to the Spanish program is that it is undertaking an active role to help the originating countries build their economies. This may explain the reason why Spain has opened new embassies in Mali, Cape Verde, Guinea, Niger, and Guinea Bissau. In addition, the country has established diplomatic representatives in Gambia, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Such level of diplomatic engagement will induce cooperation between Spain and the common originating countries for illegal immigrants.

                       4.0 Conclusion and Recommendation

Spain has adopted a raft of measures to fight illegal immigration. These measures include building a fence along the Cueta and Melilla borders and installing an advanced surveillance system (SIVE) to monitors its coastal boundary.  At its entry points, the country is using high tech tools like the Advanced Passenger Information System to control forged documents. These measures, together with cooperation with countries of origin of immigrants have kept the number of illegal immigrants comparatively low but the problem still persists. Even with these measures, the desire to enter Spain, and subsequently Europe will persist until the level of poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa is addressed.


(i)             Take active measures to address the level of poverty in sub-Saharan Africa

(ii)           Spearhead the resolution of conflict in sub-Saharan Africa and middle-east

(iii)         Increase cooperation with the originating countries of immigrants

(iv)          Continue with the surveillance of the coastal border

(v)           Continue adapting upcoming technology to control immigrants





List of References

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Pinos, J (2014) Building fortress Europe? Schengen and the cases of Ceuta and Melilla. Belfast: Queen’s university Belfast

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Urban, T (2015) Distant Shores? Evaluating Spain’s Immigration policy. Preview version Vol. 2 pp 192-214

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