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Tiny island creates big migration headache for Spain

MADRID--Spain lashed out at human traffickers Monday as it grappled with more than 80 immigrants who made their way to a tiny Spanish-owned islet off the coast of Morocco.

The new arrivals landed on the bare, rocky surface of Isla de Tierra, which lies an easy swim off the beach and is the breadth of two football pitches at its widest point.

But it is Spanish sovereign territory, and is therefore an entry point to Europe.

Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo said at a news conference he was convinced their arrival was coordinated by “mafia who traffic human beings.”

The problems for Spain began Wednesday when 19 people landed on the uninhabited rock, part of the Alhucemas archipelago which is near the Spanish territory of Melilla.

Melilla and Ceuta are two tiny Spanish exclaves in Morocco, the only land frontier between Africa and Europe.

“The situation deteriorated at dawn on Sunday with the arrival of 68 more immigrants,” the minister said, bringing the total to 87.

Six women and children needed urgent humanitarian help and were transported to Melilla, he said, but the remaining 81 were left on the island with basic help such as blankets, water and food.

Garcia-Margallo did not say what Spain planned to do with the immigrants but Spanish media said the government was hoping they would give up and return to Morocco, about 30 meters away.

The stakes are high for Spain and the European Union because hundreds of people have gathered on the Moroccan side of Ceuta and Melilla hoping for a chance to escape poverty and conflict.

Madrid wants to avoid the latest arrival sparking further attempts to land on small Spanish-owned islands, the minister said, and it has launched discussions with Morocco and European partners.

Garcia-Margallo said Spain had been in talks with Morocco since the start of the islet affair. “Our conversations are continuing today and I am sure we will find a formula between the two governments,” he said.

Immigration was a matter of European policy, he said, vowing to seek a common solution with Spain's partners.

A government official in Morocco confirmed that the two governments were seeking a solution.

“While Moroccan security forces enforce strict control along the fences installed by Spain around Melilla and Ceuta, the sub-Saharan migrants use any means, notably traffickers, to get to the other side,” the official said.

The official stressed that Morocco was no longer simply a transit point for sub-Saharan migrants, thousands of whom were now living in big cities such as Casablanca, Rabat and Tangiers.

Rabat considers Ceuta and Melilla, held by Spain since 1580 and 1496, respectively, to be “occupied.” Madrid refuses any discussion on the subject, which regularly poisons relations between the two nations.

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