Migrants in Spain in the time of COVID-19: challenges and opportunities

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The COVID-19 pandemic is changing the migration landscape in Spain. Migrants and their families are encountering the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on migration/travel restrictions and border controls. From a human rights perspective, this blog examines the conditions for irregular migrants in Spain in the context of COVID-19 to identify current challenges and opportunities while looking beyond the current crisis to think about the future of migration and migrants’ rights in Spain.

Spain is an interesting example of migration and border management practices during and post-COVID-19 for several reasons: it is a place of destination and transit for irregularised migration to Europe; it plays a strategic role and geographic location at the South-Western end of the European border, and its migration and border control policies have been supported by the European Union (and been given as an example for other member states to follow).

First, irregular migratory flows at Spain’s Southern Border have been decreasing significantly since their peak in 2018. According to data compiled by APDHA (Asociación Pro Derechos Humanos de Andalucía), the number of arrivals decreased by 48 percent in 2019 in comparison with the previous year (from 64,120 recorded arrivals to 33,261). This downward trend has continued during the first half of 2020. According to data from Spain’s Ministry of Interior, 7,402 people arrived irregularly in Spain between 1 January and 31 May 2020, a decrease of almost 29% compared with the same period in 2019.

To further contextualize how drastic the reduction in the number of arrivals has been in the months since the lockdown, according to recent reports, Moroccan and Algerian nationals are in fact seeking assistance from facilitators to return to their countries of origin, rather than to enter Spain. They do so by relying on pateras or dinghies to take them across the Mediterranean Sea, as a result of borders being closed due to the pandemic and also given the difficult conditions that migrants are experiencing in Spain due to the strict containment measures. There are anecdotal reports that people may be in fact paying up to 5,000 euros for a journey back home.

Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, migrants were already overrepresented among those in poverty and facing social exclusion in Spain. The pandemic has worsened these conditions, especially among migrants with irregular status. The conditions in camps where migrant farm workers and Roma people live are nothing less than dramatic, given the settlements’ lack of electricity, running water and scant access to any COVID-19 related emergency services or assistance.

Conditions of overcrowding have also been reported at the Migrant Temporary Stay Centre (Centro de Estancia Temporal de Inmigrantes, CETI) in Melilla. While the centre was built for 800 people, currently 1,600 live there (most of them, Tunisian and Moroccan). This has led to the collapse of basic services and has increased the risk of contagion, given the impossibility of maintaining the most basic forms of protection, especially physical distance.  

From the start of the pandemic, the social and political “migration debate” in the country that was once loaded with racist and xenophobic arguments against migrant people waned down significantly. The far right in fact refrained from making many its habitual claims against migrant people –at least for a while. At the same time, we should not fool ourselves: this tendency was, and is to this day, utilitarian in nature (after all, the migrant workforce has proven to be essential for the survival of the Spanish economy), and abuses and acts of violence against migrants have continued.

Despite this, the pandemic has resulted in practices that have been beneficial to irregular migrants living in the country to a degree, for example:

  • The immigration detention centres—known as Centros de Internamiento de Extranjeros or internment centres for foreigners (CIES) –have been closed (although not shut down), and virtually all people have been released, in order to avoid the spread of the virus.
  • The state has issued special work and residence permits to allow migrants to work in the agricultural harvests that feed Spain and that are the backbone of the country’s export agribusiness.
  • Residence permits have been automatically extended, as have administrative deadlines for their renewal. These measures are, however, not nearly as widespread as those carried out in Portugal or Italy, which have also announced regularization processes for irregular migrants.

In my opinion, the future landscape of migration in Spain from a human rights perspective poses both challenges and opportunities. On the one hand, post-pandemic, the country will focus on protecting its citizens – and will most likely side-line migrants. I anticipate the emergence of:

  • A discourse of “Spanish people first.” Spain will be hard‑hit by the economic and social crisis post COVID-19. Any pro-migrant rights initiative –like those seeking to improve the legal landscape to allow for the search and identification of missing and dead migrants — is likely to be given a cold shoulder. Racism and xenophobia could increase significantly. 
  • A call for closed borders. If COVID-19 spreads widely in the African continent, as is likely, demands to shut down Spain’s Southern border by political and social actors will emerge. Efforts to repress and punish irregular migratory flows and human rights violations linked to them could increase as well.

Despite these challenges, I also believe the pandemic provides important opportunities for improving the situation of irregularised migrants in Spain:

  • If the situation post-COVID-19 is milder than forecasts predict, perhaps the relatively lower levels of anti-immigrant speech during the pandemic will continue, and help some pro-migrant rights proposals successfully be negotiated outside of the social and political spotlight.
  • In the future, we can try to take advantage of the progressive measures carried out on behalf of migrants that have been used or implemented during the COVID-19 crisis, in order to show that pro-migrant rights policies do not lead to “chaos and destruction”. For example, alternatives to immigration detention in Spain can be explored, since COVID-19 has once again exposed the lack of purpose of these institutions that put human dignity at risk.
  • Regularization processes for irregular migrants, such as those carried out in Italy and Portugal, are examples of an inclusive response that demonstrates solidarity with migrant communities that are among the most vulnerable to the pandemic due to their lack of legal status. Ideally, such measures should not be understood as a temporary solution, but should be sustained beyond the pandemic, as part of a broader conversation about what a more balanced approach to migration reform could look like.

To face the inevitable challenges that will follow the global COVID-19 pandemic, we must strive to leave no one behind, especially migrants in vulnerable situations. In the meantime, we must prevent racist and xenophobic discrimination, as the country grapples with a profound socioeconomic crisis.


Carlos Arce Jiménez, lecturer at the University of Córdoba and coordinator in the area of migration at the Andalusian Association for Human Rights (Asociación Pro Derechos Humanos de Andalucía, APDHA).

The EUI, RSCAS and MPC are not responsible for the opinion expressed by the author(s). Furthermore, the views expressed in this publication cannot in any circumstances be regarded as the official position of the European Union.