Irun, Hondarribia (Spanish Basque Country)
From our special correspondent
The Indian summer is still hovering at the beginning of October over Hondarribia, a small coastal town in the Spanish Basque Country. Between the merry and noisy exit of the schools in the middle of the afternoon and the tourists strolling in the picturesque streets, an air of carelessness floats on one of the most beautiful towns of the Basque Country.
A few meters below, Ahmed observes, seated on a bench. Having left Chad four years ago, he has only one goal: to cross the Bidasoa river, the border between Spain and France. He says he is 17 years old and is one of hundreds of migrants who come to Irun, the city next to Hondarribia, every month. Without papers, arrived in Spain via the enclave of Melilla, in northern Africa, previously passed through Niger, he is looking for a way to reach Hendaye, whose marina can be seen. Ten minutes of crossing are enough to get there. Ahmed is determined, he has seen others: “I have already been turned away before, in Algeria, in Morocco, but we try and we try again, we have no choice. “
The young man arrived in Irun two days earlier by bus. Every evening, a small group of volunteers from Irungo Harrera Sarea, a migrant aid network, are stationed at the bus station to welcome them. A ballet now well established. “Three years ago, we noticed that groups were arriving by bus and we organized ourselves to help them, to give them food”, remembers Gari, one of the volunteers. It was during the summer of 2018 that this migratory route appeared via Irun, catching the Basque authorities by surprise. “Or else, she was already there and we couldn’t see her”, asks Gari. Since then, Irungo Harrera Sarea has increased the number of reception places.
Two evenings a week, he goes to the station and then takes the migrants to the Red Cross center, about ten minutes away by car. To have the right to sleep three nights maximum in the center, it is necessary to be in transit, in Spain for less than a year. Adam, a young Senegalese, has the right to rest there. Entered through the Canaries in March 2021, then passed through Barcelona, he arrived in Irun to go to France, where he wants to find an uncle. Shy, he stays back in Gari’s car, listening attentively to the explanations: “Adam, you see the painted green footsteps (by the volunteers, Editor’s note) on the pavement ? You follow them and you will arrive tomorrow morning at the Town Hall Square. “
The next day, Gari’s companions set up a table and a few chairs in the town hall square, in the open air. Like every morning for almost three years, at ten o’clock. Jon Aranguren, retired, spokesperson for Irungo Harrera Sarea, welcomes around ten young people, mostly French-speaking. He explains cultural differences to them, takes an interest in their final destination, begs them not to pay smugglers or swim. This year, the drowning death of three migrants, in the small but treacherous river, has shaken the spirits. Just like the death of three Algerians, run over by a TER while they fell asleep on the rails, in Ciboure, on the French side.
Jon Aranguren also tries to convince them to stay in Spain, where you can obtain a residence permit by justifying three years of permanent residence against five years in France: “Okay so, you get it, it’s better to stay here. “ Silence and knowing smiles of young Africans. No one wants to stay in Spain, Jon knows that perfectly well. He thus sees 300 migrants per month. “They mainly come from Côte from Ivory Coast, Mali and Guinea, but we have known them all over Africa. We also see some women and minors, the majority want to go to France, it is their reference and Paris seems paradise for them. ” A few would like to join the UK.
Yakouba, a 17-year-old Malian, listens attentively. Its objective remains France. “It’s the language I speak that colonized me. “ He recognizes, however, that “Spain looks good, people are helping us and the police don’t bother us too much.” Disembarking from the Canaries last March, he then went to Seville, then to Irun by bus.
“94% of migrants come from this archipelago”, assures Xavier Legarreta, director of Asylum Migration in the Basque regional government. “They usually take two months to arrive in Irun where their goal is to stay as little as possible. They rest at the Red Cross center, recharge their cellphones, regain their strength and cross the border. “
But how, when they are all under an expulsion order, do these migrants get from the Canaries to the peninsula? Xavier Legarreta, in regular contact with the regional government of the Canaries, is categorical: “The government lets them travel by plane, some (the most vulnerable and asylum seekers, Editor’s note) is sent to reception centers run by NGOs. “ And who pays for the plane ticket? Silence. One thing is certain: expulsion orders remain inapplicable, with most African countries refusing the return of migrants.
Two bridges and a railroad link Irun to Hendaye. The Saint-Jacques bridge at the border remains practically impassable. The 24-hour control of the French police for a year and a half has disrupted the lives of the inhabitants of the two towns. Many live in Hendaye but work or shop in Irun, while tourists come and go. The cars are moving at a walk …
All buses are checked, a police officer climbs aboard to spot any migrants. This border within the Schengen area and these facies checks are disturbing. For many, the Covid and terrorist threats have their backs. Jose Antonio Santano, the mayor of Irun, fears “A strengthening of controls in the run-up to the French presidential election. This permanent race to see who will take the toughest measures does not make sense, because anyway its will all arrive in France ”.
Return to Hondarribia with Ahmed, already turned away from the French side. This young migrant, obstinate, again tried twice in one day to go to Hendaye. A tourist shuttle boat can get there in about ten minutes for € 2. The third try will be good for Ahmed in this game of hide and seek told by one of the pilots of the maritime shuttles: “Quand the police are waiting for them when the boat arrives, they do not go out. Then they try again during the day. If they are turned away in the morning, they come back at noon or later. Every day, we have about 20 new migrants. “
Jon Aranguren regrets these increasingly tight controls which “Only reinforce the suffering of migrants. It’s impossible to close a border, you can put up a wall, they will make holes to get through ”. On the Franco-Spanish border, this fool’s game is not lost on Gari: “Spain is monitoring the border with Morocco very closely, but in Irun, the authorities pretend they don’t see the migrants. .