At Spain’s northern border, migrants’ holy grail is France

Crossing from Irún in Spain to the French border town of Hendaye is the last obstacle for young migrants desperate to reach France, their desired destination whatever the cost.

French police officers (L) detain four migrants trying to cross the Santiago Spanish-French border bridge between Irun (Spain) and Hendaye (France), on January 13, 2022.
French police officers (L) detain four migrants trying to cross the Santiago Spanish-French border bridge between Irun (Spain) and Hendaye (France), on January 13, 2022. Photo: Ander Guillenea/AFP

“Guys, we’ve got to get out of here!” urges Junior, a 20-year-old migrant from Ivory Coast, breaking the tense silence inside the train crossing the Spanish border into France.

Many come from former French colonies in West Africa where French is widely spoken and want to join family members living and working in France.

But at the station in Hendaye, French police are on patrol.

With Junior are five other migrants from Mali, Guinea and Ivory Coast. But only he dares get off the train.

“You don’t have a visa, you can’t come here,” one of the police officers tells him after glancing through his passport.

When they think the coast is clear, the other five quickly drop down onto the tracks.

“Stay where you are!” bellows a policeman, prompting one of the young migrants to race for a two-metre fence which he scrambles over, disappearing off into the streets.

But the others freeze as the police approach and give them forms marked “entry refused”. They are then put back on the train to the Spanish border town of Irun, an AFP correspondent said.


A migrant escapes running after crossing the border between Irun (Spain) and Hendaye (France) in the French Basque city of Hendaye on January 13, 2022.Photo: ANDER GILLENEA/AFP

Increasingly dangerous

To get here, many of these migrants have already made the perilous journey between the African coast and Spain’s Canary Islands, braving the Atlantic in barely seaworthy ramshackle boats.

Last year, 13,164 people were turned away at the French-Spanish border in the Pyrenees-Atlantiques region of France, which Hendaye is part of, more than twice that of 2020, French interior ministry figures show.

The figures are higher due to increased vigilance and more migrants travelling given the easing of Covid travel restrictions put in place at the start of the pandemic.

With increased patrols on both sides of the border, migrants are taking ever more risks, according to researchers, NGOs and local officials.

Last year, two Ivorians and a Guinean migrant drowned while trying to swim the Bidassoa River which marks the border. And in October, three Algerians who managed to cross into France died after being hit by a train.

On Santiago Bridge, which crosses the Bidassoa, French police carry out periodic checks on vehicles, while the adjacent pedestrian bridge has been closed off with huge metal fences nearly three metres (10 foot) high.

In Irun, 20-year-old Yakuba steps out from the Red Cross migrant reception centre to smoke a cigarette.

Along his nose runs a large scar he got scaling the huge spike-topped metal fence separating Spain’s Melilla enclave from Morocco in June.

“I’ve got one on my foot too, there was a lot of blood,” shrugs Yakuba, who says he left Mali “because of the war”.


People hold torches during a protest march at the Spanish-French border crossing bridge between Irún (Spain) and Hendaye (France), following the death of a migrant two days ago while he attempted to swim across the Bidasoa river. Photo: ANDER GILLENEA/AFP

After several unsuccessful attempts to cross into France over the Pyrenees, by train and finally on the Santiago Bridge, Yakuba is considering the “taxi mafia” — smugglers who charge €150 ($170) to cross the border.

But in the end, he manages to cross the bridge on his second attempt.

Controversial police checks

Although France and Spain are part of the passport-free Schengen zone, routine immigration checks were reinstated following the 2015 Paris attacks that killed 130 people.

Since then, police numbers have doubled, the interior ministry says.

But rights groups claim the checks only target people based on the colour of their skin.

“In reality, the checks are exclusively focused on black people,” says Xabier Legarreta, a member of the Basque regional government, echoing complaints by Amnesty International and French migrant support groups La Cimade and Anafe.

People are turned away “without any respect for their fundamental rights,” explains Bilbao University law professor Iker Barbero. Even those seeking refugee status are “sent straight back” and “prevented” from claiming asylum, he adds.

“It is not the police’s job to decide” whether they can claim asylum or not, he says. Nor are they permitted to turn away unaccompanied minors who, under international law, “must be protected”, Barbero adds.

On the Spanish side, police speaking on condition of anonymity criticised the legal uncertainty, saying they felt “powerless” over the constant back-and-forth of migrants sent back by France and then released in Spain, but who kept trying to cross back.


French police officers check the documents of a migrant (2R) at the Hendaye’s train station on January 13, 2022. With increased patrols on both sides of the border, migrants are taking ever more risks. (Photo by ANDER GILLENEA / AFP)

‘I’ll just keep on trying’

But one government representative in France’s Pyrenees Atlantic region, Theophile de Lassus, rejects such allegations. He says entry rules “apply to everyone” and are “fully respected”.

Migrants “who choose to enter without applying for a visa or a residency permit are turned away,” he told AFP, rejecting claims migrants were not always informed about their rights and that minors were sent back.

In 2019, only four percent of illegal migrants arrested in Spain’s San Sebastian province, where Irun is located, were sent back to their country of origin, according to internal data consulted by AFP.

With France holding the EU rotating presidency, President Emmanuel Macron wants to amend the bloc’s free movement rules to allow immigration checks several kilometres from internal borders.

France and Spain are planning to launch a new joint immigration patrol in the summer.

But Junior is not put off.

“My aim is France… and I’m going to keep on trying.”

Abdul, a 24-year-old Ivorian, agrees.

“It can’t be worse than crossing the Atlantic, so we’re not going to be put off now.”

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Moving back to UK: Brits in Spain with EU partners warned of immigration problems

Brits living in Spain and other EU countries have been warned of complex and drawn-out administrative processes if they want to move back to the UK with a European partner before the deadline of March 2022.

Moving back to UK: Brits in Spain with EU partners warned of immigration problems
EU partners warned of problems moving back to UK. Photo: Tatyana Kazakova / Pixabay

Brits who are living in Spain with a Spanish or EU spouse or partner might not have immediate plans to move back to the UK, but new post-Brexit requirements mean that the process is already more complicated, and is set to get more difficult still from next year.

After British media highlighted a series of stories of Brits left stranded when their EU partners could not get the necessary paperwork, campaign groups are urging UK nationals to plan ahead, in case they want to move back in the future.

Jane Golding, chair of the campaign group British in Europe, said: “Families considering a move now need to be aware that the process is time-consuming and complex, and that non-UK family members will first need to apply for an EU Settled Status family permit from outside the UK before the end of March 2022 and only when they have that and move to the UK will they be able to apply for EU pre-settled status.”

Before Brexit kicked in, Brits who had moved to Spain, fell in love, and found a Spanish partner or spouse could move back to the UK with their partner without much hassle, but that has now all changed.

UK nationals can of course move back at any time they chose, but their EU spouses or partners now face lots of extra forms and paperwork to be allowed to live in the UK.

March 2022 deadline

From March 31st, 2022, the EU spouses of UK nationals will have to apply for a full visa and go through a lengthy process, if they wish to move to the UK. This includes fulfilling qualifications around language, skills and having sufficient financial resources. Those who don’t meet the criteria may not be allowed to enter, even though they are married to a Brit.

Settled-status permits needed

But what if you want to move before the March 2022 deadline? Unfortunately, as the UK has already left the EU there is still more paperwork to fill out than before. Your EU partner will first need to apply for an EU Settled Status family permit before they enter the UK, and then once in the UK apply for EU pre-settled status.

At first, this process may appear simple, but UK media has reported many cases where the process has taken months or was rejected for seemingly false reasons. This has left families divided and wondering whether moving back to the UK really was the best idea.

Those considering moving to the UK are therefore advised to leave plenty of time for this, and not rely on doing it last minute before the March deadline.

Jane Golding said: “We are worried that there are many families across the EU who do not understand the implications of stringent immigration rules now applying to UK citizens in the EU”.

“Many of us have older relatives in the UK who may need our care, or we had always planned to retire to the UK to be near family,” she added.

“The grace period given until the end of March 2022 is simply not long enough for families to make decisions to uproot and then arrange to return to the UK. We continue to lobby for a longer grace period.”

You also need to be aware that children without British citizenship will also need to go through the whole immigration process once they reach the age of 18.