Jon is one of the managers of Irungo Harrera Sarea, an NGO which reports that more and more migrants are swimming across the Bidasoa river in the Spanish Basque Country on the 10 kilometers that border France: “Si ni l’Atlantique nor the Mediterranean dissuaded them, how will the Irun river stop them? And that’s a terrible mistake, ”he said.
So far this year, 4,100 migrants have crossed the border illegally, most on foot; others by car or bus and a growing number swim across the river, according to data from the Basque regional government. And that’s without counting those who have stayed in the Red Cross shelters and those who are suspicious of official organizations. Fifty migrants remain in the Basque town of Irun while waiting to cross to France, with the river still there as an option.
The Bidasoa River has already killed two people this year. On Sunday, a man drowned while trying to get to the other side. And another, Yaya, a 28-year-old Ivorian, died in May. The previous month, a third had committed suicide by throwing himself into the river.
While 4,244 migrants resorted to help from the Basque government in 2019, 4,100 have already done so in the first eight months of 2021. In 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic hit Spain, the government Basque registered 3,493 migrants. “Last Friday, 80 people heading north used Basque government resources in the Irun region; on Saturday 60; and Sunday, there were 20 left, ”explains Xabier Legarreta, director of the Basque government’s Migration and Asylum Department. He stresses that what is playing out is a “humanitarian drama”.
Legarreta says that we must create “safe humanitarian corridors”: the European Union “must act in this area”, he explains. Irun’s NGO, Irungo Harrera Sarea, estimates that an average of 20 to 30 migrants arrive in the city each day on their way north. “Ninety-five percent of them come from the Canary Islands,” says Jon: “Once on the mainland, they manage to make their way to Irun on their way to Northern Europe.
But when they arrive in Irun, they find that the border is closed. The official explanation on the French side is the pandemic. There are controls for pedestrians, train passengers and even for those in small boats. “And these are not general controls, they are selective; they only ask for documentation from those who look Arab or sub-Saharan Africans, ”explains Jon.
If their papers are not in order, they are sent back to Spain. Up to two or three times in many cases, without any involvement of the Spanish police. They are left on the bridges of Santiago or Behobia. “Desperation is starting to take its toll among the unlucky migrants,” says Jon. “And in this state of desperation, they do whatever it takes to continue their journey.”
Ten kilometers “impossible to control 24 hours a day”
The river is not a viable option, however. Although the Basque police keep an eye on the banks of the Bidassoa as they pass through Irun, the 10 kilometers that make up the border are “impossible to control 24 hours a day”, explains a police officer, while adding that the surveillance is more and more intense.
“It’s not uncommon to see four or five pass each other in a group,” says Jon. “The problem,” he explains, “is that the rumor is spreading within the migrant community that crossing the Bidasoa River is easy because in some places there are barely 40 or 50 meters between the two banks and low tide, it gives the impression that we could cross.
“The river is an illusion,” explains Adrián, from the Santiagotarrak Sports Society in Irún, which specializes in rowing and canoeing and whose members know the Bidassoa like the back of their hand. “The other shore looks very close, but it’s actually a long way away, and if they’re tired or malnourished or can’t swim very well, it’s a death trap in some places.”
Spanish canoeist and Olympic medalist Maialen Chourraut was training at the so-called San Miguel curve, about three kilometers from Pheasant Island where the migrant died on Sunday. It is an area of rapids of about 150 meters which, at high tide, is used by specialists in whitewater rafting. At low tide, care must be taken because of the abundance of tidal pools.
Yaya, the migrant who died in May, lost his life in the Île aux Faisans region, in the part closest to France, where the river gets deep. On this section, the depth changes suddenly. Traveling with her nephew, who survived, Yaya worked as a bricklayer and taxi driver for the two of them to travel to Europe. The couple took a boat to Western Sahara and after five days of drifting they reached the Canary Islands. They then traveled to Malaga and from there to Irun. But Yaya did not cross the Bidassoa River. “People are dying because they are not given passage,” said Anaitze Agirre, another spokesperson for the NGO Irungo Harrera Sarea.
Strict controls by French authorities at the borders in Irun also favor those who take advantage of migrants’ desperation, according to Jon. Between those who claim to organize a safe passage to the other side and leave them on the shore, and those who charge $ 50 to pass them off to drop them, “a business is being created that is starting to get dangerous,” he says.
One migrant protesting Sunday’s death was Hakim. The drowned man has not yet been identified. All that is known of his fingerprints is that he was not registered. Following the tragedy, Hakim says he decided not to swim to France. Although he says it by mumbling. Because, if there is only this option, if the other roads are closed … who knows?
english version by Heather galloway.