Hundreds of migrants were rescued by Spanish authorities in the Strait of Gibraltar in recent days, with authorities in Tarifa having to equip a municipal gym to accommodate them once on land.
With reception centres increasingly under strain, Tarifa’s municipal authorities, working alongside the Guardia Civil, the police, the Red Cross and the Spanish maritime rescue service, have again stepped up to give the migrants shelter and ensure their basic needs are met.
At its peak on Friday, Spanish authorities brought ashore nearly 500 people who were trying to cross the Strait of Gibraltar in small boats.
Among them were men, women and children of all ages.
But the flow of people continued into the weekend too.
Spain’s maritime rescue service pulled 986 people from 69 small boats its rescue craft reached in waters in or near the Strait of Gibraltar between Friday and Saturday.
At least 792 migrants have died crossing the Mediterranean so far this year, according to the United Nations.
Through the first five months of 2018, a total of 35,455 migrants reached European shores, with 11,792 of them arriving in Spain.
The influx echoes similar circumstances in 2014, when over 1000 migrants reached the shores of the Campo de Gibraltar in less than 48 hours, placing huge demand on authorities in the area.
“We’ve known for months that this could happen,” Francisco Ruiz, the mayor of Tarifa, told Europa Sur newspaper.
“As a council, we are doing what the government is asking of us but also what our citizens demand, which is that we show maximum solidarity.”
At least four migrants died in recent days too and Tarifa’s authorities held a minute’s silence to mark the fatalities and underscore the dangerous of the risky crossing.
Last year, some 22,102 migrants crossed the strait in 1,248 boats, an increase of 8000 people over 2016.
The drama in the Strait of Gibraltar unfolded as the first Italian government ship accompanying the migrant aid boat Aquarius docked at the Spanish port of Valencia.
The Italian coastguard vessel Dattilo arrived just before 7am on Sunday.
It will be followed by the Gibraltar-flagged charity ship Aquarius and another Italian navy ship, the Orione.
The Aquarius and the two Italian boats are carrying the 630 migrants rescued by the Aquarius while attempting the perilous crossing of the Mediterranean last week.
The Aquarius, a boat operated by the aid groups SOS Mediterranee Sea and Doctors Without Borders, was stuck off the coast of Sicily last Saturday when Italy refused it permission to dock and demanded Malta do so.
Malta refused and Spain stepped in and offered to grant them entry some 930 miles away.
The migrants were met by emergency workers, including health officials and psychologists, at the city’s marina.
David Noguera, the head of Doctors Without Borders in Spain, said he was glad that Spain allowed the migrants in but said he was worried that more European nations would close their ports to those rescued at sea in the future.
“I have mixed feelings,” he told The Associated Press.
“I am happy that the journey (for the Aquarius migrants) is over – a journey that was too long – and I am worried for the situation in the Mediterranean and the closing of European ports.”
Valencia emergency official Jorge Suarez said some of the migrants were in a state of shock.
“They are very shaken,” Suarez said. “Put yourself in their position, you get off a ship and the first people who greet you are wearing masks.”
Spanish authorities have said they will examine the migrants case by case to see if they qualify for asylum according to the country’s regulations.
Spain’s minister of public works, Miguel Angel Abalos, said on Saturday that the migrants from the Aquarius would be granted a “special authorisation” to remain in the country for one month before “they will be dealt with according to our laws without exception”.
Mr Abalos said the Spanish government “will act with sensitivity and at the same time within the law, and with a message to Europe that it doesn’t have an immigration policy up to the challenge at hand”.
The boatload of migrants that was forced to spend days crossing the western Mediterranean includes 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 children and as many as seven pregnant women, according to Valencia’s regional authorities.
Spain has accepted the French government’s offer to take in those migrants who want to go to France “once they have fulfilled the protocols established for their arrival”.
The refusal by Italy and Malta to allow the Aquarius to enter their ports has created a row between EU members over how to handle immigration.
Under the EU’s asylum laws – currently the subject of a major political dispute and under revision – migrants must apply for asylum in the country where they first enter Europe.
In practice, the policy has placed a heavy burden on Italy and Greece, where hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers have arrived in recent years.
Spain’s new Socialist government has taken up the cause of the migrants’ plight to demonstrate its commitment to protecting human rights and respecting international law.
All photos by Spain’s Guardia Civil/Ministerio del Interior