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“I am inside a prison? But why?”

Non-profit lawyers denounce conditions in which a group of nearly 500 migrants is being held in a Málaga penitentiary

Relatives of migrants being held at Archidona prison (Málaga).
Relatives of migrants being held at Archidona prison (Málaga). EFE

The door opened and the lawyers Arantxa Trigueros and José Luis Rodríguez saw the first five immigrants standing on the other side of the glass partition, escorted by uniformed police. They looked nervous and disoriented.

They and more than 400 other migrants who landed in southeastern Spain last week are being temporarily held inside a newly built penitentiary in Archidona, Málaga, while authorities find a more suitable solution.

Spanish legislation stipulates that undocumented migrants cannot be held inside facilities “of a penitentiary nature”

“We were really astonished by our contact with the immigrants. They walked with their hands behind their backs. And they were placed in single file to walk in and out. It was a procedure that went far beyond penitentiary treatment,” says Rodríguez, a lawyer for Andalucía Acoge, one of nearly 30 non-profit groups that have filed a complaint with the Ombudsman over the decision to keep the migrants inside a prison facility – even if it is one that has yet to officially open.

Spanish legislation stipulates that undocumented migrants cannot be held inside facilities “of a penitentiary nature.” Instead, there is a network of holding centers, known as CIEs, that have come under fire over recent years due to their overcrowded conditions. The CIEs, where migrants may be held for 60 days before deportation or release, are often referred to by critics as prisons in everything but name.

This is the maximum expression of poor planning and insensitivity on the government’s part

Socialist Party deputy Antonio Pradas

Leftist parties have criticized the Popular Party (PP) administration for the decision to send the migrants to Archidona, which will be inaugurated in January.

“This is the maximum expression of poor planning and insensitivity on the government’s part,” said Antonio Pradas, a deputy with the Socialist Party (PSOE). He and other fellow Socialists have introduced a motion in Congress asking for improved facilities and greater human and financial resources to handle migrant arrivals by boat.

Prison or CIE?

In order to get around the legal glitch, the government has renamed the site a “provisional CIE” and placed a former director of the CIE at Aluche (Madrid) at the helm.

“But this has nothing to do with a CIE. Everything smells brand new, but it is a fully fledged prison,” says Rodríguez. “You walk in and go through all the gates. The migrants don’t have tobacco, either, and some of them had clear symptoms of withdrawal. They were very nervous.”

A CIE immigrant center in Spain.
A CIE immigrant center in Spain.

The immigrants have been distributed two to a cell inside three of the complex modules. The “rooms,” as the Interior Ministry calls them, are locked at night, ministry sources have confirmed.

“I am in a prison? But why?” asked one of the immigrants who sat down to speak with the lawyers on Tuesday.

“This is highly irregular,” insists Trigueros, noting that glass partitions have been prohibited inside the CIEs because they “grievously limit personal dignity and the right to receive a humanitarian, non-degrading treatment,” according to a report by a Barcelona judge.

60 days

Undocumented migrants who come to Spain typically know, through word of mouth, that they will be either let go or taken to a CIE for a maximum period of two months.

But the large group that landed on the coasts of Murcia and Almería late last week ended up inside a prison facility instead, as authorities scrambled to find room for them elsewhere.

At that point, Archidona still lacked drinking water, forcing the government to send in thousands of water bottles. Government sources said this problem has since been fixed, and that cooks have been hired to provide fresh food to replace the rations that the migrants lived on for several days.

Two of the interns said they were 17 years old, a claim that the attorneys have communicated to the Juveniles Department of the Málaga Attorney’s Office. Another migrant requested immediate medical assistance for an ailment that requires medication.

Legal action

Legal action is already underway to get the migrants transferred elsewhere. Acaip, a prison union, has filed several complaints, including one claiming a violation of workers’ rights, since nearly 300 prison workers were supposed to take up their new jobs at Archidona in the coming weeks.

The migrants’ defense has also prepared an appeal against the judge’s decision to send them to the penitentiary.

English version by Susana Urra.