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As Europe battles over border policy, migrants flood to Spain

Three years into the migration crisis, Europe remains as divided as ever about how to handle the influx of people arriving illegally from Africa. Spain has overtaken Italy as their main entry point, in part because of its more welcoming stance toward immigrants. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports on the treacherous route migrants must endure and how European migrant policy is evolving.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It turns out that Spain has become the main arrival point for illegal migrants heading to Europe from Africa. In so doing, it's overtaken Italy, where a new right-wing government has adopted strong anti-immigrant measures.

    Spain has taken in nearly 34,000 migrants so far this year, which is 43 percent of all those crossing the Mediterranean.

    As part of our continuing series Desperate Journey, and with the help of the Pulitzer Center, special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    For the legitimate traveler with the right documents, the journey between Africa Europe could not be more agreeable.

    Fifty bucks buys a ticket from the Moroccan port of Tangier to Southern Spain on a hydrofoil, crossing one of the world's busiest shipping lanes in just over half-an-hour.

    But this is reality for migrants who dream of Europe and that most of Europe wants to keep out, $1,000 dollar place on leaky plastic dinghies that sometimes make it to the Spanish holiday beaches.

    This is one of several landings captured on video by tourists this summer. The migrants' beacon is the Rock of Gibraltar. According to the U.N.'s International Organization for migration, so far this year, nearly 400 people have drowned aiming for these beaches. In the Mediterranean as a whole, the number is around 1,800.

    This Spanish coast guard video highlights the perils. This trio from Congo arrived in Spain a few days ago and have ventured out from a Red Cross hostile in the town of Algeciras. They fled Congo because of recurring violence.

    Forty-two-year-old Pauli asked us to mask her face as she discussed the traumatic crossing.

  • Pauli (through translator):

    The Moroccans are bad. And, as a result, people get on these small boats. Many of them die in the water. And it's all because of the suffering in their own countries. Those little boats, it's so difficult to Spain, and it's only thanks to God that I got here.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Some local politicians had warned that tourist resorts risked being swamped by Africans. The pro-immigrant campaign groups say the newcomers only stay a few days in the south and after being processed are shipped out to other parts of Spain.

    But not everyone leaves. Yacob from Togo has stayed in the south and is working as a plumber in the town of La Linea. He asked us to protect his identity.

  • Yacob (through translator):

    My advice would be, I am not God. But I'd say that if you're able to achieve everything you want in your country, stay there. Sometimes, when you are there, you build expectations, like Europe being a paradise or a place where you can get everything you want without suffering.

    But when you get here, things are different. If you're not lucky, it will be difficult for you to be free in Europe.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Dr. Saida Ayala is a lecturer in migration studies who is also actively involved in helping the newcomers. She argues that Spain needs to do more.

  • Dr. Saida Ayala (through translator):

    I believe the situation is so tough that Europe should open borders and open doors and help every person. It's not just Italy. It's all of Europe. We should open doors and receive and host. Spain has the capacity to accept people.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Three years into this crisis, and more and more European countries are adopting hard-line attitudes towards migrants, Italy in particular, since it's closed its ports to migrants rescued at sea.

    But Spain is the exception. Its stance is much softer since the Socialist administration took control in the summer. But the Socialists have the most fragile government since Spain was returned to democracy 40 years ago. Any misstep could lead to its demise. So this kind approach is not necessarily set in stone.

    These two far-right politicians are working to bend Europe to their vision of the future, Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini and Austrian's vice chancellor, Heinz-Christian Strache.

  • Heinz-Christian Strache (through translator):

    Generally, I would like to state that one cannot agree with any deliberations to make migration a human right. That is contrary to all our principles and the principles of democratic states. Of course, every state must be able to safeguard its own sovereignty.

  • Matteo Salvini (through translator):

    It is our goal to secure the outer borders of the European Union. And looking to the coming year, we want to change Europe completely and exclude all Socialists from the European Parliament.

    But in a recent interview with a Reuters News Agency, the Spanish socialist prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, made it clear that he wants to be a bulwark against the rise of the right in Europe.

  • Pedro Sanchez:

    Of course, it's important indeed to make that control of frontiers. But, of course, you also need to see globally what the migration policy means.

    It means, first of all, to reinforce and to strengthen the cooperation and the dialogue with the countries of origin and the countries of transit. And this is something that we are delivering, as the Spanish government.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Overlooking Gibraltar is a man on the immigration front line.

    Jose Villahoz is president of Algeciras Welcomes, a nonprofit that works to protect, educates and integrate newcomers. He's skeptical about the new government's promises to be more generous to migrants, but is more worried about those on the right wing.

  • Jose Villahoz (through translator):

    What usually brings racist or xenophobic reactions is the speeches of the Spanish right-wing forces. This causes an unjustified alarm, because we are all seeing that there is nothing special going on here. And most of the people that arrive here on a boat will not stay in Spain, and therefore it won't be a problem for Spain.

    What they give is a false version. Frightening people will ultimately result in xenophobic reactions.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    In Algeciras, many immigrants gravitate towards a picturesque square near the port. It contains numerous ethnic cafes and shops.

    At nighttime, there is some prostitution. Many African women are forced to become sex workers to pay for the journey to Europe.

    The changing demographics make former ship's captain Enrique feel uncomfortable. He says he really ventures out with his dog after dark.

  • Enrique (through translator):

    Because we have been on the street this year to defend our pensions in Spain, and then these people come, and for the simple act of coming here, they are earning more than a retired person. I personally don't like that.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    But Libya being such a dangerous place for migrants, the trail to Europe via Morocco and Spain will increase in significance. The European Union has decided to establish an international border force to protect these and other beaches.

    But it won't be ready for two years. In the interim, the tide will continue to be irresistible.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant in Southern Spain.

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