a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press.
Freedom of Speech: The law prohibits, subject to judicial oversight, actions including public speeches and the publication of documents that the government interprets as celebrating or supporting terrorism. The law provides for imprisonment from one to four years for persons who provoke discrimination, hatred, or violence against groups or associations on the basis of ideology, religion or belief, family status, membership in an ethnic group, race, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, illness, or disability.
On February 25, the Constitutional Court ruled that criticism, even severe, of politicians is protected speech and overturned the prison sentence of rapper Cesar Strawberry. In 2017 the Supreme Court sentenced Strawberry to a one-year imprisonment related to his social media posts criticizing politicians that the court ruled as hate speech.
The Law on the Protection of Citizen Security, known as the “gag law,” penalizes the downloading of illegal content, the use of unauthorized websites, violent protests, insulting a security officer, recording and disseminating images of police, and participating in unauthorized protests outside government buildings. The NGO Reporters without Borders (RSF) called the law a threat to press freedom, and the Professional Association of the Judiciary considered it contrary to freedom of speech and information. During the government-decreed state of alarm from March 14 through June 20, state security forces used this law to fine citizens who violated mandatory confinement orders. Amnesty International protested the use of the law to fine several persons who filmed an incident allegedly showing police harassing a mentally ill man and his mother, noting its longstanding concerns with the vague formulation of the law, which authorizes sanctions for “lack of respect of law enforcement officials.” The acting ombudsman declared in April his intention to investigate its application during the confinement. On November 19, the Constitutional Court, in deciding a case brought by the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) in 2015, upheld most of the law but ruled the provision against unauthorized recordings of members of security forces to be unconstitutional.
In a March 8 report, the UN special rapporteur for minority issues expressed concern that the October 2019 sentencing of 12 Catalan politicians and civil society activists interfered with the freedom of expression and nonviolent political dissent of the Catalan minority and could serve as a signal to prevent the political dissent of other minority groups. The national ombudsman rejected the categorization of the Catalan-speaking population as a minority.
On July 16, Amnesty International called on the government to repeal the criminalization of the glorification of terrorism, insults to the crown, and offending “religious feelings,” which it maintained unduly restricts freedom of expression.
On January 16, the Barcelona hate crimes prosecutor presented the first-ever legal complaint against an individual who falsely claimed in social media that unaccompanied foreign minors were linked to school violence. The prosecutor noted that online hate speech was often not prosecuted due to lack of information on the identities of the perpetrators.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views generally without restriction. The RSF and other press freedom organizations, however, indicated that the country’s restrictive press law and its enforcement impose censorship and self-censorship on journalists. In January the Universal Periodic Review of the country by the UN Human Rights Council noted that the Law on the Protection of Citizen Security was used against journalists who reported on police action during protests.
Journalist associations denounced the format of the government’s press conferences during the government-decreed state of alarm during the COVID-19 pandemic. The journalists claimed they had to send all questions in writing in advance to a government communications office, which then relayed them to the relevant ministry. They alleged that not all their questions were passed on and that they were unable to engage in direct dialogue with government officials. More than 400 journalists signed an open letter to the government under the title “The Freedom to Ask” and demanded increased access to question government officials. In April the government ended its requirement that questions be submitted in writing in advance.
Violence and Harassment: There were multiple reports of government officials’ verbally attacking certain media outlets and specific journalists. On March 1, President Pedro Sanchez accused “conservative” media of “stirring up society” every time conservatives lose an election. The same day, Second Vice President and Podemos party Secretary General Pablo Iglesias claimed press critical of the government had “offended the dignity of journalism.” Also in March, Iglesias threatened to send a journalist to prison for publishing compromising information about his party, especially regarding its financing. The comments were immediately condemned by the Press Association of Madrid.
In July, following comments by Iglesias against the press and a tweet by Podemos party congressional spokesperson Pablo Echenique attacking the professionalism of a television anchor, the Federation of Journalists Associations of Spain condemned Iglesias and Echenique for attempting to “coerce and intimidate” journalists to prevent them from freely exercising their profession. The RSF also called on the Podemos party leadership and all political parties to respect the freedom of the press.
The RSF blamed repeated attacks against media by the Vox party for provoking verbal and physical attacks on reporters during May countrywide protests against the government’s COVID-19 policies. In one instance several individuals assaulted a photographer covering a protest in Madrid, threw his camera to the ground, and tore his shirt. The RSF also voiced concerns about Vox’s online harassment of critical journalists and fact checkers and condemned Vox for banning some media outlets from attending its press conferences and election events.
In February the International Federation of Journalists warned in its 2019 annual report about the increase in cases of violence against the exercise of journalism in Catalonia, asserting that this community has become “dangerous territory” for journalists.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government fully funds the public media conglomerate Spanish Radio Television (RTVE). The RTVE’s president is proposed by the government and confirmed by parliament. Journalists complained that the RTVE, under a caretaker president since 2018, operated with insufficient oversight and claimed that the caretaker president arbitrarily reassigned news directors and journalists.
Libel/Slander Laws: Under the law slander is an offense punishable with six months’ to two years’ imprisonment or a fine. The law was not used by the government or individual public figures to restrict public discussion or retaliate against journalists or political opponents. The law does not criminalize blasphemy, but fines may be levied against those who offend the feelings of members of a religious belief or of those who do not have a religious belief.
National Security: Amnesty International and other organizations criticized the antiterrorism law as overly broad, but there were no known reports of the government using the law to suppress its critics.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
The government declared a state of alarm throughout the country from March 14 through June 20 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The state of alarm restricted internal movement and foreign travel. During most of this period, movement was restricted to purchasing food, medicine, and essential goods; visits to the doctor, bank, or insurance company; going to essential employment; or taking care of children, the elderly, or other dependent persons. Police were empowered to impose sanctions on those who did not comply with the restrictions. According to data provided by the national government representatives in the country’s 17 autonomous regions, during the state of alarm there were more than 1.1 million proposed sanctions (generally fines) and more than 9,000 arrests for violations of confinement orders. When the national state of alarm ended, some regional governments imposed restrictions of movement in certain places because of an increase in the number of infections.
While the state of alarm was legally enacted by parliamentary approval, some civil society organizations noted it was applied inconsistently and arbitrarily. The ombudsman reported receiving thousands of citizens’ complaints during the state of alarm and expressed concern about possible abuses, but on September 4, the ombudsman ultimately declared the measure constitutional in light of significant health concerns.
During the state of alarm, immigrants in irregular status and those working in the informal economy, particularly domestic workers, were often sanctioned by law enforcement while travelling to their workplaces due to the lack of required employer authorization paperwork. Amnesty International expressed concern about the disproportionate impact of the state of alarm on homeless persons and the “dozens of cases” in which they were fined for being on the streets. The NGOs Rights International Spain and International Decade for People of African Descent maintained police enforced an excessive interpretation of sanctions during the state of alarm by not requiring police officers to issue direct, specific, and individualized infractions.
On June 16, the European Parliament’s Petitions Committee approved a request from a Spanish lawyer to investigate whether the government exceeded the limits of the state of alarm and violated fundamental rights.
f. Protection of Refugees
Irregular migration to the country increased by 26 percent during the year compared with the same time in 2019, with 37,303 arrivals as of November 30, according to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Sea arrivals increased by 50 percent (35,862 arrivals as of November 30) primarily due to the increased popularity of the West African route to the Canary Islands, which saw a more than 10-fold increase during the year, with 21,028 migrants arriving by this route as of December 6. Local NGOs reported that more than 2,000 of the arrivals were unaccompanied migrants, who were placed under the care of the Canary Islands regional government. According to UNHCR, the government’s limited resources for evaluating new arrivals often made it difficult for the government to distinguish between economic migrants and those seeking international protection.
The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: UNHCR, the International Organization on Migration (IOM), NGOs, the national police union, and an association of judges criticized the government-operated internment centers for foreigners who are to be deported (CIEs) for a variety of reasons, including alleged violation of human rights, overcrowding, prison-like treatment, and a lack of interpreters. The law sets the maximum time for detention in CIEs at 60 days. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Moroccan and Algerian migrants were detained in CIEs upon entry to Spain, because these countries have extradition agreements with the Spanish government. Migrants from sub-Saharan Africa were not sent to CIEs but were placed into the voluntary care of humanitarian NGOs.
In May the government closed the CIEs because border closures prevented the return of migrants to their countries of origin. Most new irregular arrivals arriving by sea were tested for COVID-19, and those who tested positive were referred to health authorities. Moroccans and Algerians already present in CIEs were released, and new arrivals from those countries were either placed into the care of NGOs or released. On September 22, the government announced it would reopen the seven CIEs on the peninsula and the Canary Islands and resume repatriations. The CETIs in Ceuta and Melilla remained open during the state of alarm.
In Melilla overcrowding at a CETI prompted local authorities to house migrants temporarily at the city’s bullring. On August 26, police arrested 33 migrants at a CETI after a protest against poor conditions and concerns of contagion turned violent. In late August, Amnesty International, UNHCR, the IOM, and the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern about deteriorating conditions in Melilla and called on the government to transfer migrants to the mainland to alleviate severe overcrowding. Two judges blocked the local government’s attempts to lock down the CETI after several migrants tested positive for COVID-19, stating it was the central government’s responsibility to transfer migrants to the mainland in accordance with a Supreme Court decision on July 29 allowing freedom of movement throughout the country for asylum seekers who applied in Melilla and Ceuta. On September 2, a total of 60 migrants were transferred from the bullring to the mainland, the first such transfer since May.
The regional governments in Andalusia, Murcia, and the Canary Islands all reported difficulties managing COVID-19 testing and quarantine requirements for migrants arriving by sea. Local NGOs in the Canary Islands reported being overwhelmed by the large number of migrant arrivals to the islands exacerbated by the central government’s decision not to transfer most migrants to the mainland to prevent encouraging more migrants to make the journey. Beginning in August the government started housing thousands of migrants in Red Cross tents at the Arguineguin port on Grand Canary Island, reaching a peak of 2,600 migrants in mid-November. NGOs and local government officials reported insufficient toilets and other sanitation supplies, bedding, and nutritional food for the migrants. On November 28, the ombudsman, citing overcrowded conditions, called on the interior minister to close the port immediately and to transfer the migrants to other facilities. On December 1, the government closed the port and transferred newly arrived migrants to a military installation, also on Grand Canary Island.
Since 2019 the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) adopted 14 decisions against the country concerning age determination of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in the country. On October 13, the CRC stated that the country’s procedures to assess the age of unaccompanied migrant children violated their fundamental human rights. The CRC experts found various violations of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, including the right to identity, the right to be heard, and the right to special protection of children deprived of their family environments. In one case, according to the CRC, a 17-year-old Guinean teenager arrived in Almeria in 2017 after the Red Cross intercepted the small boat in which he was travelling. Although the teenager told police he was younger than 18, the police allegedly registered him as an adult without performing any age assessment. Police rejected his asylum application and detained him in a CIE for adults. Authorities released him 52 days later after an NGO helped him obtain his birth certificate, but, according to the CRC, he was not assigned a guardian to look after his legal interests, and he was not offered special protection provided for children under Spanish and international law.
Refoulement: The country has bilateral agreements with Morocco and Algeria that allow Spain to deport approximately 95 percent of irregular migrant arrivals of citizens from those countries, almost all without administrative processing or judicial order, in accordance with the Law of the Protection of Citizen Security. NGOs continued to criticize this practice, known as “hot returns.” Repatriations under these agreements stopped in March when the border was closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The government maintained this practice is legal and did not report the statistics of the number of persons returned to Morocco or Algeria. An agreement between Spain and Morocco permits the Spanish Maritime Safety Agency to operate from Moroccan ports and to return irregular migrants it rescues off the Moroccan coast to shore in Morocco rather than to Spain.
On February 13, the ECHR reversed its position on Spanish “hot returns” of migrants that occasionally cross the land border from Morocco into the enclave cities of Ceuta and Melilla. In 2017 the ECHR ordered Spain to pay 10,000 euros ($12,000) in compensation to two migrants who were returned to Morocco immediately after jumping the border at Melilla in 2014. The Spanish government at the time appealed the ruling. The ECHR’s new ruling determined that the government did not violate the European Convention on Human Rights, because the migrants put themselves in an illegal situation instead of attempting a regularized entry. Therefore, their immediate return was a consequence of their own conduct, the ruling concluded.
Local NGOs and UNHCR reported several cases of refoulement by authorities in Ceuta and Melilla. The local NGO Walking Borders accused the government of the refoulement of 42 migrants to Morocco on January 3. According to the group’s statement, which was cosigned by more than 60 other human rights groups, authorities picked up the migrants from the Spanish islands of Chafarinas and returned them to neighboring Morocco without verifying their identity or ensuring that those eligible for asylum could have their claims processed. Authorities denied the so-called “hot return,” stating that the migrants were rescued at sea by Moroccan authorities and were never on Spanish territory. The ombudsman rejected the government’s claim.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. Authorities review asylum petitions individually, and there is an established appeals process available to rejected petitioners. The law permits any foreigner in the country who is a victim of gender-based violence or of trafficking in persons to file a complaint at a police station without fear of deportation, even if that individual is in the country illegally.
The COVID-19 pandemic froze the asylum application process during the government-decreed state of alarm, during which time potential asylum seekers were unable to make new petitions for asylum. NGOs including the Spanish Commission for Refugees (CEAR) and the Red Cross as well as UNHCR continued to report concerns about delays in the asylum application process, with wait times varying across regions. UNHCR reported a one- to three-month waiting period to get an appointment to request asylum in Madrid and up to a year in some areas of Catalonia. Since the end of the state of alarm, the Ministry of the Interior has acknowledged continued delays because of the limited ability to conduct in-person interviews.
The ministry began digitalizing its asylum system to alleviate some of the case backlog. On November 4, a ministry official told congress that the Office of Asylum and Refugees increased its staff from 60 to 291 to speed up application processing. According to the secretary of state for migration, by October 30 the government had reduced the case backlog to 3,000, down from 8,000 earlier in the year.
UNHCR reported that 78,812 individuals had filed asylum claims in the country as of the end of October, a decrease of 16 percent from the same period in 2019. Of these, Latin Americans (particularly from Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador) accounted for 86 percent of applications; Venezuelans were the largest group (see below Temporary Protection). Most migrants arriving to the country from Africa and the Middle East sought to transit to other destinations in Europe and therefore did not apply for asylum in Spain.
According to CEAR’s 2020 Annual Report, in 2019, 118,264 individuals applied for asylum in the country. The government offered international protection to 5.2 percent of applicants whose cases were resolved, compared with 24 percent in 2018. Of the 60,198 persons whose cases were resolved in 2019, 2.7 percent (1,653) were granted refugee status. Large percentages of applicants from Colombia (98.9 percent), the West Bank and Gaza (90.6 percent), El Salvador (88.5 percent), Nicaragua (84 percent), and Honduras (79.5 percent) did not receive either asylum status or other protection.
Safe Country of Origin/Transit: Under EU law the country considers all other countries in the Schengen area, the EU, and the United States to be safe countries of origin.
Freedom of Movement: The COVID-19 pandemic limited migrants’ freedom of movement since the government blocked many transfers of migrants from Ceuta, Melilla, and the Canary Islands to reception centers on the mainland. According to UNHCR, the government regularly facilitated humanitarian transfers from Ceuta and Melilla prior to the government-decreed state of alarm from March to June, but during the state of alarm it facilitated only two such transfers. The government did not provide data on transfers from the Canary Islands, but NGOs including the Spanish Red Cross reported it slowed considerably due to the pandemic. In November the interior minister announced the government would only transfer a small minority of vulnerable migrants to the mainland to prevent encouraging more migrants to make the journey. The ombudsman criticized the decision, and stated the government violated the freedom of movement of migrants it kept in tents at the Arguineguin port beyond the 72 hours of police custody permitted under the law.
On July 29, the Supreme Court ruled that migrants who apply for asylum in Ceuta or Melilla have the right to freedom of movement throughout the country. Previously, NGOs had criticized the government for not allowing freedom of movement for asylum seekers from the two autonomous enclaves until a decision had been made on the admissibility of their claim.
Employment: NGOs noted that many asylum seekers were unable to renew their paperwork required for employment due to lack of in-person appointments, leading some to miss job opportunities.
Access to Basic Services: Migrants from countries without a return agreement and those who demonstrated eligibility for international protection were provided housing and basic care for up to three months as part of a government-sponsored reception program managed by various NGOs. Due to the difficulty for migrants seeking international protection on the Canary Islands to travel to the mainland during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Spanish Red Cross permitted some migrants to stay in their reception centers for longer than three months.
In September the secretary of state for migration issues accepted the ombudsman’s recommendation to grant temporary residency permits to those seeking international protection without having to give up their applications for asylum.
Durable Solutions: The government accepted refugees for relocation and resettlement and provided assistance through NGOs such as CEAR, Accem, and the Spanish Red Cross. UNHCR noted the country’s system for integrating refugees, especially vulnerable families, minors, and survivors of gender-based violence and trafficking in persons, needed improvement.
The government assisted in the safe, voluntary return of failed asylum seekers and migrants to their homes or the country from which they came.
Temporary Protection: The government also provided temporary protection to individuals whose applications for asylum were pending review or who did not qualify as refugees. CEAR reported that in 2019 the government granted international subsidiary protection to 1,503 individuals. Additionally, the government granted one-year residency permits (which can be extended to two years) on humanitarian grounds to 39,776 applicants (66 percent of applicants whose cases were resolved), the overwhelming majority of them from Venezuela. Humanitarian protection was generally not granted to immigrants from other Latin American countries.
According to the Ministry of the Interior, the country has adopted a policy of providing humanitarian protection to Venezuelans who do not qualify for other types of international protection in the country, including asylum. As of October 31, a total of 25,858 Venezuelans applied for asylum in the country, at 33 percent of all applicants, the largest group of asylum seekers. Humanitarian protection provides residency and work authorization for one year, which can be extended. Humanitarian protection was generally not granted to immigrants from other Latin American countries.