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Des migrants logés dans le centre de transit de Bayonne se reposent face à la rivière Adour à Bayonne. © Mohammad Ghannam/MSF


French-Spanish border: migrants trapped in relentless cycle of rejection

Migrants from Local Center are taking a rest in front of Adour river in Bayonne. © Mohammad Ghannam/MSF
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The border between France and Spain has become one of Europe’s main crossing points for migrants seeking to reach France or continue on to other countries. Médecins Sans Frontières teams make regular visits to French border areas to document the situation and also provide ad hoc support to local organisations. In December 2018, the teams went to Bayonne, Irun and Hendaye.

    Although close to 1,000 kilometres separate the Italian border from the Spanish border in the Basque country, rights’ violations and French police methods are much the same. 

    French police deployed on the bridges separating France from Spain routinely turns back asylum seekers, a practice amounting to refoulement.  “Once they’re sent back from France, migrants are handed over to the Spanish police who, after a summary identity check, release them at the foot of the bridge that goes from Irun to Hendaye—only a few metres from the border,” explains Corinne Torre, head of mission for MSF programmes in France.

    The migrants are caught into a relentless cycle of rejection. Alone and helpless, they are made more vulnerable to people smuggler networks, who are often their only alternative to enter into the territory and claim their rights. 

    I got to Irun, crossed over to France and took the train to Bordeaux (France). When I arrived at the station, the French police stopped me. They asked me for my documents but I had nothing to show them. Then they asked me my age. I was born in 2002, on 19 February 2002. They told me to get in the car with them and they took me to Irun (Spain). As a minor, that was not what I was expecting. We’re supposed to be provided protection,” says Nana. As a 16-year old minor, he is indeed entitled to protection and should have been given shelter in France.

    In border areas, civil society has organized itself to step in and substitute for woefully inadequate public services. Some examples are a citizens’ collective based in Irun (Spain), which assists migrants arriving from southern Spain or sent back from France, and associations Diakité and Atherbea that run a transit centre with accommodation for 200 people in Bayonne (France) and which is always full.

    To help with addressing the situation, MSF teams support civil society and volunteers with donations of hygiene kits and blankets.

    Some municipalities, Bayonne, for example, also assist migrant people: “I was on Place des Basques [in Bayonne], the square where migrants gathered, with my deputy who’s responsible for Solidarity. Witnessing their hardship, that they hadn’t had anything to eat for quite a while and hadn’t been able to shower for even longer, I didn’t waste time asking myself whether or not we should help them. I see it as a moral obligation, whatever our convictions, religion, or our values. It’s a simple question of humanity,” explains Jean-René Etchegaray, Mayor of Bayonne. 

    This relentless policy of push back and refoulement is intolerable. People are denied the opportunity to apply for asylum in France, and minors are not considered as such – they are routinely turned away and sent back to Spain instead of being protected by the French authorities as the law requires.