Migrant sea arrivals rising in Spain, could outpace Greece

FILE - In this Aug. 9, 2017 file photo taken from video, a woman watches as migrants scatter from a rubber dingy beached on the coast at Cadiz, southe

FILE - In this Feb. 17, 2017, file photo, migrants sit on the ground next to Spanish police officers after storming a fence to enter the Spanish encla

MADRID (AP) — Sunbathers on a southern Spanish beach were startled this week when 30 to 40 fully clothed men pulled up to shore in a rubber boat and scattered across the sand.

The next day, about 700 other migrants from Africa tried unsuccessfully to storm the border crossing between Morocco and Ceuta, a tiny Spanish enclave on Africa's northwest tip.

The two incidents were the latest evidence of the significant uptick in the number of migrants seeking to make Spain their European point of entry. The pace has quickened so rapidly in recent months that some experts think the country could overtake Greece in the number of newcomers arriving by boat this year.

The International Organization for Migration says 8,385 migrants have reached Spain by sea so far this year, more than double the number from the same period last year. Greece, meanwhile, has had just over 12,000 migrant sea arrivals in 2017, a huge drop from the 160,000 seen at the same point in 2016.

If Spain's average monthly arrivals of between 1,500 and 2,000 people keep up, "it's a pretty good bet that it will overtake Greece," IOM spokesman Joel Millman told The Associated Press.

Italy is on track to remain by far the top first destination for migrants seeking to reach European shores. The IOM reports that 97,000 migrants have gotten to Italy by boat so far this year, slightly down from the 100,000 who did so during the same period last year.

Experts say it's difficult to pinpoint why the water route to Spain via Morocco has become a preferred option for some migrants.

One possibility is that the Mediterranean Sea crossing from Libya to Italy is seen as more dangerous, both because of Libya's instability and stepped-up patrols, at the European Union's urging, by the Libyan coast, according to Millman.

Since eight of the top 10 African countries where migrants live before they look to Libya as a jumping off point are located in western Africa, heading north to Morocco and trying for Spain could be cheaper, easier and safer, he said.

"Given where the people are coming from, it's possible this might explain a shift away from Libya and the increased numbers in Spain," he said.

Putting the situation in perspective, the IOM says that since the beginning of 2015, more than 1 million migrants have gone to Greece, 430,000 to Italy, and just 29,000 to Spain.

Even if the number of migrants to Spain continues to rise, it is unlikely to reach the record of some 40,000 arrivals the country had in 2006, according to the Spanish Red Cross.

Before waves of refugees and migrants started pouring into Europe via the Mediterranean two years ago, simple wooden boats arrived in Spain regularly starting in the early 1990s. The passengers, mostly from Morocco and neighboring Algeria, were looking for a better life in Europe and using Spain as a doorway.

Years later, sub-Saharan Africans also fleeing poverty and sometimes war and began to arrive at the Canary Islands from West African countries. The number of sailings peaked in 2006 after Spain made loan and investment deals with several countries.

Both the IOM and the Spanish Red Cross say Spain is well-equipped to manage the new influx despite complaints from some groups that the country's temporary accommodations for migrants already are filled to capacity.

The migrants either make it to the Spanish coast or are intercepted in the Mediterranean Sea by Spain's marine rescue service and then taken ashore.

The Spanish Red Cross, whose workers are among the first to tend to migrants when they arrive, says it has treated double the number of sea-arriving migrants in southern Spain during the first since six months of 2017 compared to a year earlier.

"It's unpredictable, but we have to prepare for an intense few months of arrivals given the good weather," Inigo Vila, head of the organization's emergency unit, said.