Spain's migrant drama highlights EU outsourcing policy flaws

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A member of Moroccan security forces stands guard at a hill overlooking the border of Morocco and Spain as Moroccan and sub-saharan migrants attempt to enter the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, on Wednesday, May 19, 2021. Spains north African enclave of Ceuta has awakened to a humanitarian crisis after thousands of migrants who crossed over from Morocco spent the night sleeping where they could find shelter. (AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)

BRUSSELS – The sight of hundreds of migrants swimming or climbing fences separating the Spanish enclave of Ceuta from the rest of Africa this week is a stark reminder of just how dependent the European Union can be on the whims of countries it chooses to pay to enforce its migration policy.

Since well over 1 million migrants entered the EU in 2015, most of them refugees fleeing conflict in Syria, the world’s biggest trading bloc has spent vast sums trying to ensure that migrants no longer set out for Europe on arduous overland treks or dangerous sea journeys.

The EU granted billions of euros and other incentives to Turkey, for instance, to stop people leaving for Europe. Yet, just over a year ago, the government in Ankara waved thousands of people through the land border to Greece, sparking violence that almost erupted into open conflict.

That dispute was over Turkey's view that the EU had failed to amply support its invasion of northern Syria. Since then, the 27-nation bloc has quietly gone about reinvigorating the EU-Turkey deal, with an offer of yet more money and trade incentives.

Perhaps the authorities in Morocco are using the same playbook when an EU country takes action they, too, find unacceptable. “Morocco is playing with people’s lives. They must not use people, among them its own citizens, as pawns in a political game,” said Virginia Álvarez, Head of Internal Policy at Amnesty International Spain.

What is clear is that more than 8,000 people crossed into Spanish territory over two days this week. Many risked their lives by swimming around a breakwater to reach a beach on the European side.

Hanne Beirens, Director of the Migration Policy Institute, told The Associated Press that migration can feature very prominently at the negotiating table when the EU is drafting agreements with outside countries, whatever their nature.

“Today, if as a third country you hold a migration card in your hand, you’re a powerful player,” Beirens said.