Portugal: Migrant landings ‘may indicate new route’; talks with Rabat continue

The recent landing on the Algarve coast of 21 young people from Morocco has sounded the alarm about what some say is a new migratory route but which the government denies as such, despite having previously been engaged in negotiating a mechanism for legal migration with its counterpart in Rabat. 

On 21 July, in the latest “wave” of migration, 21 young men, all undocumented but reportedly Moroccan nationas, landed on the island of Farol, near Olhão, in the eastern Algarve. 

After being questioned at Faro judicial court, they were transferred to Linhó prison, in the municipality of Cascais, near Lisbon, where they now await “procedures for the removal process” that is to be initiated. Most are to be extradited to Morocco, from where they are deemed to have left. 

In the last eight months, a total of 69 men have landed in the Algarve from North Africa, but only one has secured refugee status. The rest did not apply for asylum or were refused that status; at least 13 are said to have fled. 

According to the Portuguese authorities, the series of landings do not constitute a new migratory route, and the phenomenon is far from comparable with the scale of arrivals in Spain, Italy or Greece this year.

Meanwhile, the government says that it is committed to negotiating with Morocco a mechanism for legal migration, with measures to facilitate the search for employment for Moroccan nationals. 

On Wednesday Portugal’s minister of internal administration, Eduardo Cabrita, held a meeting by videoconference with his Moroccan counterpart, during which the landings in the Algarve in recent months were also discussed. 

In an official statement, the ministry stressed the need to step up cooperation to prevent and combat illegal immigration and the trafficking in human beings, both at the bilateral level – through reinforced coordination between Portugal’s Foreigners and Borders Service (SEF) and its Moroccan counterpart – and in the framework of relations between Morocco and the European Union, of which Portugal is a member.

With that in view, the “importance and mutual interest of concluding the ongoing negotiations for an agreement on legal immigration between Portugal and Morocco” were also discussed, the statement says. 

On 22 July, Portugal’s minister of state and foreign affairs, Augusto Santos Silva, said that the government was monitoring “with great attention” the recent migrant landings in the Algarve; he also mentioned the issue of legal migration, whiche he described as “a real alternative to irregular migrations and all sorts of trafficking that feeds on them and encourages them”.

In early 2020, during a visit to Morocco, Santos Silva proposed to that country the text of a labour migration agreement, which Morocco has since been reviewing.

“I agreed with my Moroccan colleague that we would move ahead with negotiations for an agreement on legal migration,” he said at the time. 

However, Santos Silva has acknowledged that the Covid-19 pandemic had slowed down the negotiation process. 

“We have used all the mechanisms at our disposal to work with the Moroccan authorities, in particular through their ambassadors, so that we can reach an agreement as soon as possible,” he said.

In a reference to the fifth and most recent group, of 21 migrants, who landed in the Algarve, Cabrita had also previously rejected the idea of a new migratory route. 

“We’ve had 48 arrivals against 7,700 in Spain,” he said on 23 July when questioned by journalists on the issue. “Not to play this down, but we have to measure the size of what we’re talking about.

“We are assessing the situation in direct dialogue with the Moroccan authorities, being aware that this does not alter in any way our global approach on the migratory phenomena that must be legal and ordered,” Cabrita added, stressing that the government in Lisbon had presented a plan for legal and ordered flows with several states.

However, on 22 July the union that represents SEF inspectors said that in its view a new route for illegal immigration via the Algarve had been demonstrated, with Portugal is serving mainly as a gateway to Europe.

“The evidence is not denied – and there is a reality here,” the union’s president, Acácio Pereira, told Lusa after the most recent landing. “There is a route and we are a destination.

“Things must be assumed and dealt with properly, this is the only way to resolve them,” he said, stressing that “while Spain already has readmission and return agreements with Morocco,” Portugal is still in negotiations on an agreement with the country.

Pereira argued that “these issues should have been resolved long ago,” alleging that Portugal’s Integrated Surveillance and Command and Control System (SIVIC) “never worked” and “never managed” to detect the five boats that arrived in the Algarve. He lamented the fact that the country does not have “a single temporary holding centre” for migrants pending processing of their cases.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has also said that a new route via the Algarve may have emerged, while stressing that its evolution would depend on the reactions and decisions of the authorities in Portugal and Morocco. 

Meanwhile, in a statement released on 30 July, Portugal’s navy said that it was stepping up surveillance off the country’s southern coast, with the use of a speedboat and a corvette, with the aim of “increasing the capacity of detection, location, identification and timely reaction, always with a view to preserving maritime safety and safeguarding human life at sea.”

While the navy did not comment on the possible existence of a new migratory route via the Algarve, the chief of general staff of Portugal’s armed forces, Admiral António Silva Ribeiro, warned in early July of the challenges and problems posed by “irregular migration to Europe, where the possible emergence of a new route from Morocco to the Algarve should not be overlooked”.