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Incoming Migrants Overwhelm Spain's Refugee Centers


Spain received the highest number of migrants on their shores last year, topping both Italy and Greece. Spain saw a sharp increase of arrivals last summer, which overwhelmed refugee centers in the south. And this year, Spanish officials expect the number to keep rising. Lucia Benavides reports.

LUCIA BENAVIDES, BYLINE: Mamaru Lamine Sarr is ironing shirts for a clothing store in downtown Barcelona. The store is run by an association of undocumented migrants. Sarr, who's from Senegal, is one of the union's founding members. He says they opened the shop in 2017 to help migrants find steady work.

MAMARU LAMINE SARR: (Speaking Spanish).

BENAVIDES: Since he arrived in Spain in 2006, Sarr says he's had to take care of himself. There's been virtually no official support, just some help from local activists and the migrant community. This past year, he says he's seen the numbers increase as authorities bus migrants into Barcelona from overcrowded reception centers in the south.

SARR: (Speaking Spanish).

BENAVIDES: "They drop you off at a bus station," Sarr says. "And you don't know anyone. The only solution," he adds, "is to sleep on the street until someone helps you out." Maria Dantas is one of those people. She works with a network of activists across Spain to coordinate help for migrants with nowhere to go.

MARIA DANTAS: (Through interpreter) This summer, we saw a peak in arrivals. Our goal was to not let these people stay in the streets.

BENAVIDES: Around 58,000 migrants arrived in Spain in 2018, more than double the number in the previous year. Dantas says authorities were totally unprepared.

DANTAS: (Through interpreter) There was a lack of foresight and provisions in place for the Spanish government to take in these people.

BENAVIDES: Barcelona's immigration coordinator, Ignasi Calbo, agrees. He says the city received 5,000 of the nearly 60,000 migrants last year, yet the central government didn't send any extra funds to deal with the influx.

IGNASI CALBO: (Through interpreter) The biggest complaint that cities have is that we are dealing with this alone.

BENAVIDES: And it's not just the migrants crossing the sea from Africa, Calbo adds. There are people migrating to Barcelona from all over the world. The biggest percent of asylum-seekers are actually from Venezuela. Barcelona has doubled the capacity of its homeless shelters. But Calbo says many migrants, including unaccompanied children, still end up living on the streets.

CALBO: (Through interpreter) For Europe and European countries, immigration is a political problem. They talk about flows, numbers and quotas. But cities have to deal with the day-to-day reality.

BENAVIDES: And the flow of migrants could continue to increase. According to the U.N. Migration Agency, 3,400 migrants have arrived in Spain in the first three weeks of this year - three times the number in 2017. For NPR News, I'm Lucia Benavides in Barcelona.

(SOUNDBITE OF VETUSTA MORLA'S "MAREA BAJA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lucía Benavides