As in thousands of towns and villages across Spain, the inhabitants of the sleepy Andalusian pueblo of Archidona cheered and clapped as they greeted the three kings in the annual Epiphany procession, while helpers on the kings’ elaborately designed floats threw out handful after handful of boiled sweets to the watching crowds, and Christmas carols boomed out overhead.
But just a few kilometres away from Archidona’s maze of narrow paved streets and beautiful eight-sided, 17th-century town hall square, an as-yet unopened prison, acting as a temporary holding centre for hundreds of migrants, is currently providing a much bleaker welcome for some other, less willing, visitors to the town.
The prison was given its surprising and controversial new role last November, when more than 500 refugees and migrants were intercepted in less than a week on the Mediterranean coast near Murcia. With many of Spain’s holding centres already overflowing, the judges overseeing the legal processing of the new arrivals ordered them to be taken hundreds of kilometres westwards to central Andalusia, to what court documents euphemistically called “an internment centre for foreigners”.
For some, the Archidona prison is symptomatic of a deeper crisis in Spain’s handling of its refugees. According to the latest figures from the UN’s International Organisation for Migration (IOM), the number of migrants and refugees reaching Europe by sea has dropped dramatically, from 363,504 in 2016 to 171,409 in 2017. But in Spain, the IOM reports the number of migrants reaching the country’s coastline has nearly tripled, from 8,162 in 2016 to 21,663 in 2017. The situation in holding centres grew so critical in Catalonia that last year, for four days, a dozen underage refugees were given temporary accommodation in a Barcelona court waiting room.
Meanwhile, the solution of using the prison in Archidona, which Spain’s Ministry of the Interior insists is “exceptional and temporary”, has now entered its third month. Some Spanish NGOs and opposition parties have pointed out that the use of a prison as a holding centre is illegal and – given it initially lacked running water – woefully inadequate, and the PSOE, Spain’s Socialist Party, has demanded the Minister of the Interior answer questions in parliament about the prison.
Media reports say around 300 migrants remain there, just over half the original total, but after the death last week of one of them, 36-year-old Algerian Mohamed B, calls for their immediate rehousing have regained in strength.
Citing unnamed sources inside the prison, local newspaper El Sur claimed the migrant died after being involved in a scuffle when various migrants began harming themselves in a bid to be transferred to hospital. A medical check-up at the time reported only slight injuries, but the next morning he was found dead in his cell.
The Spanish authorities are certain it was suicide. Earlier this week, after an initial autopsy revealed no signs of external violence, a Spanish judge stated there would be no further investigation into the cause of death. The judge also overrode concerns expressed by the Andalusian regional government that if the programme of deportations of other migrants continues, witnesses may no longer be on Spanish soil to testify.
However, the Algerian authorities have now said that they will carry out a full investigation of their own. Mohamed B’s family have also confirmed they will appeal against Spain’s legal investigation being ended, with their lawyer claiming in El Sur he was kept isolated and unattended in his cell for more than 15 hours.
The unopened prison has itself been the subject of a fair amount of controversy. Falling prison numbers in Spain and the initial absence – only noticed after building work was completed – of a watchtower for its walls meant its inauguration has been repeatedly delayed.
Meanwhile in Archidona, opinions among its 9,000 inhabitants on the conditions in the prison seem to be divided. “I’ve got friends among the police and the translators up there and they say they [the migrants] have got everything [they need],” Rafa Lara, a local bar owner, told The Independent. “It’s just that some of them, seeing they’re interned there in a prison, aren’t happy and there are lots of sensationalist press reports.” Mr Lara also criticised “these little human rights groups and ecologists who are always complaining about everything”.
“It’s not legal, but they’re not prisoners, and they had nowhere else to house these people. I hear, in any case, that in a couple of weeks, it’ll all be completely empty again.”
However, another local resident who did not want to be named told The Independent: “I’ve heard the place is getting trashed.” The local Izquierda Unida (United Left) party, which until recently ran Archidona town council, issued a sternly worded press release last November, pointing out: “They are not delinquents, nor have they been condemned for a crime, to be deprived of their freedom in a prison.”
Almost the only thing everybody can agree on is that life in Archidona itself has been unaffected, “barring a lot of talk and what we see on the telly”, says Mr Lara.
Conditions are said to have improved considerably since the prison began housing the migrants. However, the rumours of prisoner protests continue and the case of Mr Bouderbala’s death has perhaps yet to be fully resolved.
“There is constant humiliation,” one migrant in the prison wrote in a letter sent when the prison was first used. However, by the time the letter reached Spanish newspaper El Pais and was partly published, according to one local NGO, he had already been deported.
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