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Controversy over the decision to hold illegal immigrants in the unopened Archidona prison

Some of the immigrants demanding to be released from the new jail in Archidona, where they are being held.
Some of the immigrants demanding to be released from the new jail in Archidona, where they are being held. / FERNANDO TORRES
  • The Spanish ministry insists that it has the right to use the jail as a temporary internment centre but lawyers and NGOs disagree

A row has broken out between the interior ministry, lawyers and NGOs over the decision to hold nearly 500 illegal immigrants in the new Archidona prison in inland Malaga province, which is due to open in January. According to Spanish law, migrants can only be held in internment centres while their deportation papers are processed, not in jails.

The situation arose after hundreds of immigrants arrived in small boats off the coasts of Murcia and Almeria last Thursday. According to reports, the police went to court on Sunday morning and asked the judge for permission to admit them to the 'Centro de Internamiento de Extranjeros de Archidona', in other words referring to an internment centre for foreigners, and not to a jail. The judge agreed. A lawyer assisting the immigrants has said that neither he nor they were told that they were to be taken to a prison.

The mayor of Archidona, Mercedes Montero, received a call on Sunday morning from security minister, José Antonio Nieto, to advise her that the prison was going to be used “provisionally and as an exceptional measure” to house the immigrants, and that they would be arriving soon. No date was given, so she says she was surprised when 464 of them were transferred to the jail on Monday.

On the same day, the interior ministry issued a press release, in which it referred to the prison as a “centre” and used the word “rooms” instead of cells. The jail was officially announced as such in the Official State Bulletin (BOE) on 18 March, but there is some debate about whether this applies while it is brand new and has never been occupied by prisoners.

The haste with which the immigrants were sent to Archidona caused considerable logistical problems. Internment centres may only be guarded by police officers, not prison officers, so those who had started working at Archidona to prepare for the arrival of the first prisoners in January had to be sent back to their previous places of work and others who were due to join them were told not to do so.

The interior ministry also had to ask for police officers to volunteer to guard the jail while the immigrants are being kept there, but many of those who did so will not be able to start work until next week.

When the immigrants arrived on Monday there was no food or drink available for them, not even water, because the tap water is not suitable for domestic consumption. The mayor of Archidona says the town does not supply water to the jail, and although it has its own treatment plant this has not yet been authorised for use.

On Tuesday the interior ministry remedied this situation by sending 2,000 food portions and thousands of bottles of water to the prison for the immigrants. Two doctors and support staff were also assigned to the prison, and Red Cross workers are expected to join them this week.

The government insists that, although the regulations do not permit immigrants to be held in jails, there are exceptions to this in situations where no other solution is available, and that this is laid down in an EU directive.

In face of the criticism, interior minister Juan Ignacio Zoido said that this solution was infinitely preferable to setting up a temporary camp. His ministry also says that although the authorities are permitted to keep the immigrants for up to 60 days while their deportation papers are being processed, in this case it should be completed within 40 days.

The situation has caused an outcry among charities and around 30 of them, including SOS Racismo, Andalucía Acoge, ProDerechos Humanos de Andalucía and Servicio Jesuita de Migrantes, have made an official complaint to the Andalusian Ombudsman, Jesús Maetzu, who said he was surprised and concerned by the government's decision.

The Junta de Andalucía has warned that a jail is not a suitable place for immigrants and the PSOE and Unidos Podemos political parties have described the move as “illegal”.