ALGECIRAS, SPAIN - Spain, known for having one of the most tolerant immigration policies in Europe and accepting boatloads of migrants when no other EU nation would, was expected to open its doors even wider under its new socialist government. But that policy now appears to be going in reverse.
In a country that has shunned anti-immigration currents prevalent in much of Europe, the mass expulsion of 166 Sub-Saharan Africans who forced their way through barbed wire fences last month and attacked guards along the Spanish north African enclave of Ceuta's border with Morocco, has become an embarrassment for Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, officials and analysts say.
"Humanitarianism is not permissiveness" said Spanish interior minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska before a parliamentary hearing on Wednesday ."Orderly, secure and legal immigration is possible, but not violent migration that threatens our country and its security forces."
More than 600 migrants stormed across six-meter-high fences onto Spanish territory on July 26, hurling acid and feces, and firing home made flame throwers at border guards.Several members of Spain's Civil Guard police force were seriously injured in the struggle, triggering calls from their top commanders for an immediate crackdown.
Spain has generally enforced a policy granting asylum to migrants who reach Spanish soil by sea or through land borders around Ceuta and Melilla, enclaves that are surrounded by Morocco.
The asylum seekers are generally housed at temporary shelters while NGOs process their applications for EU free circulation passes.
Many come with plans to continue on to northern Europe where wages and benefits are better, causing other EU governments to complain about Spain's relatively open border policies. French President Emmanuel Macron recently ordered the deportation of large numbers of African migrants who crossed into his country from Spain.
Within days of the Ceuta border assault, Spanish police rounded up 166 migrants from a shelter in Ceuta and drove them back across the border to Morocco, invoking a special extradition agreement negotiated between the two governments 25 years ago and which had rarely been implemented before.
The expulsions generated a political crisis for the new, untested prime minister Pedro Sanchez. The hard left United We Can party coalition, known in Spanish as "Unidos Podemos," as well as Basque and Catalan nationalists on whose parliamentary support Sanchez' minority government depends, accused him of violating human rights and of breaking his promises of a more compassionate policy.
Sanchez began his term in May with a decision to allow the migrant ship Aquarius to dock at Spanish ports after it was denied entry by Italy's recently elected right wing government.He had also pledged to remove rolls of razor-sharp concertina wire attached to the border fences as requested by various human rights organizations.
Quoting the International Organization for Migration, conservative opposition leader Pablo Casado said immigration to Spain had tripled since the new government took office in June. He said authorities were taking emergency measures to strengthen border defenses that had been previously rejected by the socialists.
Spain's daily newspaper El Mundo reported that angry calls from chiefs of the militarized Guardia Civil who threatened to resign if drastic measures were not taken to counter the attack on border units, forced the government's hand.
A retired Civil Guard general who acts as a top advisor to the interior ministry, speaking anonymously, told VOA the gendarme forces were already strained in southern Spain.
"We have to start removing some these people and prevent too many more from getting here," he said.
While last month's forced entry at Ceuta was the most dramatic and violent experienced until now, it was not the first and could initiate a trend of even more serious future attacks, according to security analysts.
Grande-Marlaska said the group that broke through the fence displayed a high degree of organization. The interior minister said they used cutting tools, improvised weapons and coordinated tactics by which shock units held back police to open holes through which hundreds of others slipped through the fence.
Police arrested 10 more immigrants on Wednesday and authorities accused of them of leading the attacks against the Guardia Civil. Officials said the group's ringleader is of Togolese origin and had experience in his country's armed forces, including some paramilitary training.