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Is Spain experiencing an immigration boom?

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Is Spain experiencing an immigration boom?

Rescued migrants arrive at the port of Tarifa, Spain, July 28, 2018.
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REUTERS/Jon Nazca
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Debate about immigration is hotting up in Spain as the country has become the Mediterranean's most sought-after destination for irregular migrants travelling by sea, surpassing Italy and Greece.

Politicians from the opposition People's Party (PP) — who were ousted from power after a vote of no confidence toppled their former leader Mariano Rajoy on June 1 — have accused the new government of turning the country into the main European port of call for illegal migrants by creating a "pull factor" when it allowed the Aquarius rescue ship to dock in Valencia in June.

"It is not possible to have papers for everyone," Pablo Casado, PP's newly-elected leader said over the weekend.

The country, he said, cannot "absorb millions of Africans who want to come to Europe in search of a better future".

The government, led by socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, have meanwhile refuted such claims, putting the blame on the previous PP government.

"Rather than a pull factor, we could talk about a lack of foresight in the last years of the previous government, which did nothing about increasing arrivals, and obliged this government to take urgent steps," Sanchez's office said in a statement earlier in the week.

Spain surpasses Italy

Arrivals to Spain surpassed those to Italy for the first time in July, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), a UN agency.

Some 20,992 migrants arrived in Spain by sea between January 1 and July 25 — triple the amount registered during the same period last year, according to the IOM. Over half of the arrivals were registered in June and July.

Coupled with arrivals by land — 3,125 — Spain has seen a total influx of more than 24,000 so far this year, close to the 28,000 migrants it welcomed for the whole of 2017.

The country's Interior Ministry has a slightly more conservative estimate, registering a total of 19,997 arrivals through to July 15 — with 16,872 by sea.

A source at the ministry told Euronews that the increase over the past two months was due to a combination of factors including better weather, the end of Ramadan and the closure of other routes through Italy and Greece.

In a tweet, the ministry also emphasised that the upwards trend started in 2016.

"The number of arrivals of immigrants to Spain by sea has increased in recent years, especially since 2016."

Italy meanwhile registered 18,130 migrant arrivals by sea though to July 25, a sharp decrease from the same period last year when more than 94,000 migrants reached its shores.

Spaniards care little about immigration

The recent fiery rhetoric between the two main political parties over immigration marks a shift in the country's politics.

Contrary to many other EU countries where the migration crisis has pushed right-wing parties further to the right, or significantly boosted anti-establishment parties, Spain had so far proved an exception.

In a survey conducted last month by CIS, the country's official statistics agency, only 3.5% of Spaniards listed immigration as one of their top three concerns.

It also comes as EU member states try to negotiate a common policy on the issue.

In a June summit, EU leaders agreed to alleviate the burden on Mediterranean countries by taking in some of the migrants. They also agreed to open processing centres from where migrants would make their claims for asylum.

Tasked with looking into how best to establish those centres, Gerald Knaus, chairman of the European Stability Initiative think tank, proposed on Tuesday that the first should be opened in Spain.

"It is not about a "central camp", it's about making it possible to quickly process asylum applications from those who are now coming to Spain, to support them in concrete terms and to make offers together with countries of origin. What would the alternative be?"