Asylum-seekers' limbo at Madrid airport 'unsustainable' -rights groups

FILE PHOTO: Aircraft are seen on the tarmac of Adolfo Suarez Madrid-Barajas Airport in Madrid

By Inti Landauro and Catarina Demony

MADRID (Reuters) -Several hundred migrants seeking asylum are in limbo at Madrid airport, sleeping in crammed spaces with poor conditions, Spanish rights groups said, describing the situation as "unsustainable."

Spain's Commission for Assistance to Refugees (CEAR) told Reuters on Monday the number of people requesting international protection upon landing at Madrid's international airport, Barajas, has been increasing since last summer.

"In December, the situation became unsustainable," said CEAR spokesperson Elena Munoz. "People sleep on mattresses on the floor, sometimes several per mattress ... There are bed bugs and cockroaches."

There were up to 400 people stuck at the airport last week, and "more and more arrive every day," according to Munoz, who could not provide a precise number as of this week.

A Spanish interior ministry spokesperson would not give any estimates either, saying the number of migrants "fluctuates" with flight arrivals.

According to the ministry, there are three rooms equipped with bathrooms set aside for migrants seeking asylum, with a fourth to be opened imminently.

It has increased surveillance of airport facilities, upped the number of police, border officers and cleaning staff, while working with the foreign ministry to issue more transit visas.

Most of the migrants were from African countries such as Senegal, Mali, Equatorial Guinea and Morocco, but some were also from Colombia and Venezuela, CEAR said. It said they arrive without a visa or lack some of the required documents and have to wait for their entry to be granted or refused.

Illegal immigration and asylum have become contentious political issues in Europe, the United States and other nations in the past decade as more migrants have taken dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean and to the U.S.-Mexico border.

CEAR said the issues causing the problem at Madrid airport include a shortage of interpreters and long waits of 10-20 days for the applications to be processed.

The Red Cross has also raised concerns and decided to temporarily stop providing services at the airport.

"There comes a time when there is no point in continuing to do a job if we cannot take care of these people as they deserve," Jose Sanchez of the Red Cross told Onda Cero radio. "All these people are fleeing from very difficult situations."

2023 was a record year for irregular migrant arrivals in Spain, particularly on the Canary Islands, where most arrived by sea. The Atlantic route to the Canary Islands is the deadliest.

In a separate statement on Monday, the interior ministry said it had reached an agreement with the EU border agency, Frontex, for two joint operations this year - one covering the western Mediterranean and one on the Canary Islands.

(Reporting by Inti Landauro, Catarina Demony and Emma Pinedo in MadridEditing by Andrei Khalip, Mark Heinrich and Matthew Lewis)