Spain’s Sánchez tries to contain migration with Africa visit


MADRID — Spain’s prime minister is embarking on a mini-tour to two African nations that are key in the European country’s new push to bolster ties with the neighboring continent and mitigate the migration flows that many fear could increase as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic.

Pedro Sánchez, who travels with representatives of a dozen Spanish companies, is scheduled to meet Angola’s President Joao Lourenço during his stop in Luanda on Thursday and with Senegal’s Macky Sall in Dakar on Friday.

He will preside over business meetings in both countries and pay a visit to Spanish police working with Senegalese counterparts to crack down on human trafficking across the West African coast. The contingent comprises 57 members of Spain’s Civil Guard and National Police, two patrol boats, and a helicopter based on the port of Dakar.

Africa has proportionally reported fewer coronavirus cases and deaths than Europe. But officials in Madrid fear that the fallout of lockdowns in jobs and the shockwaves of the global economic slump could send even more Africans on the perilous journey to European shores, many of them via Spain.

Over 41,000 people from Morocco and West Africa crossed to Spain in 2020, and more than half of them did it by embarking on flimsy boats to the Canary Islands, the Spanish archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean, off the northwestern African coast.

Spanish authorities are holding thousands of migrants, including potential asylum seekers, in camps set up on the islands, hoping to return as many of them to their home countries either voluntarily or through agreements with African governments. Part of that solution is to resume flights of forced returns to Senegal, a program that has been halted since 2018.

Another step is to increase Spain’s limited investment and trade exchanges with the neighboring continent as a way to lift African economies and dissuade potential migrants. Nearly one-fifth of Spain’s exports in 2019 went to Africa, amounting to 19 billion euro ($22 billion). Spain imports from the continent were worth 27 billion euros in the same period.

But Sánchez, a Socialist leading a left-wing coalition, has said that he wants to turn 2020-2030 into “Spain’s decade in Africa,” with both Angola and Senegal among the top priority countries in his three-year “Focus on Africa” policy drive.

Briefing journalists ahead of Sánchez’s tour, officials said that the two African countries had been chosen due to their growth perspectives and influence in the continent. Angola is also seen as a main player against regional tensions and as a safeguard of maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea, where Spain has pledged to send a warship to fight piracy.

Sánchez has also a pending visit to Morocco, the southern neighbor and a key partner to contain flows of migrants trying to reach European shores through irregular means. But the last attempt by the two leaders to meet, in December, was called off with officials citing the coronavirus pandemic as the main reason. No new date has been set for the visit.

Sánchez will wrap his tour in Senegal on Friday by visiting a military base for Spanish and other international forces fighting extremism in the Sahel region and the center in Dakar that will host the first Cervantes Institute in sub-Saharan Africa for studies of the Spanish language and culture.

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