a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press and other media, and the government generally respected this right. An independent media, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined generally to promote freedom of expression, including for media members.
Freedom of Expression: The law prohibits, subject to judicial oversight, actions including public speeches and the publication of documents the government interprets as celebrating or supporting terrorism. The law provides for imprisonment from one to four years and fines for persons convicted of provoking discrimination, hatred, or violence against groups or associations based on ideology, religion or belief, family status, membership in an ethnic group, race, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, illness, or disability, as well as for those who offend religious sentiments, glorify terrorism, insult the Crown and state institutions, or propagate hate speech. 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. A range of civil society organizations and rights groups continued to point to these provisions of the law as limiting freedom of expression in the country.
On March 8, the Supreme Court ruled Twitter’s temporary suspension of the account of the Vox political party was reasonable and proportional. Twitter had suspended the account in January 2021 after the party tweeted North African immigrants were responsible for the majority of crimes committed in Catalonia ahead of the Catalan regional elections.
Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views generally without restriction. Reporters without Borders (RSF) stated political polarization and piecemeal legislation threatened the right to information.
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, disobeying a security officer, and participating in unauthorized protests outside government buildings. On February 8, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic sent a letter to the parliament urging reform of the law, particularly the provisions impinging on the rights of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly as well as the right to seek asylum and the prohibition of refoulement. On May 31, a group of six civil rights NGOs published a statement denouncing the slow pace of reform in the country’s parliament and reiterating their position that the law constituted a threat to press freedom. The RSF stated police continued to arrest journalists and courts sometimes favored the version of police over that of journalists. The RSF also reported members of the press were subjected to lawsuits that sought to deny their right to protect the confidentiality of their sources. In June several NGOs held a public meeting with political parties in Congress to provide recommendations for reforming the law.
Several NGOs reported that although the Constitutional Court in 2020 ruled the provision of the Law on the Protection of Citizen Security prohibiting the unauthorized recording of members of the security forces was unconstitutional, police continued to restrict individuals’ freedom of expression by issuing fines for doing so under the law’s disobedience clause. The clause allows police to fine individuals up to 600 euros ($640) for disobeying orders even if the individual was not engaged in unlawful activity.
In June several press freedom organizations expressed concern regarding the fining of photographer Javier Bauluz under the Law on the Protection of Citizen Security and called on the government to reform the law. Bauluz was fined in a 2020 incident after he refused a police officer’s demand to leave a public area in which he was photographing the arrival of refugees and migrants.
On January 18, The RSF and opposition parties condemned the exclusion of several news organizations from a press conference organized by the presidency. Two opposition members of the European Parliament wrote a statement to the European Commission alleging the government had imposed barriers to free access to information. In December 2021, the Press Association of Madrid denounced the government for holding presidential press conferences with limited or no allowance for journalists to ask questions.
In October the Press Association of Madrid issued a statement rejecting comments by President Pedro Sanchez in which he stated that some Madrid media outlets were biased against the government. The association stated the country’s “balanced” press “seeks the truth and defends above all the freedom to publish it.”
In November the ECHR ruled the country violated the right to freedom of expression of military officer and law professor Miguel Ayuso and ordered the government to compensate him 4,000 euros ($4,280). In 2013, the Ministry of Defense reprimanded Ayuso after he made comments on a television program regarding the country’s transition to democracy and 1978 constitution. The court ruled the government violated Ayuso’s rights in publicly reprimanding him and stating his views were not protected by the right to freedom of expression.
Violence and Harassment: There were some reports of government officials and politicians verbally harassing certain media outlets and specific journalists. On February 16, the Provincial Court of Madrid acquitted a police officer on charges of attacking freelance photojournalist Guillermo Martinez during an April 2021 demonstration. The court ruled that prosecutors should open a criminal investigation into Martinez and three other journalists, who all acted as witnesses for the trial, for alleged false testimony regarding the incident. The Committee to Protect Journalists called on authorities to drop their criminal investigations into the journalists to “ensure that members of the press do not face legal harassment for reporting on police.” The RSF stated charging the journalists for false testimony constituted “serious intimidation.”
Censorship or Content Restrictions for Members of the Press and Other Media, including Online Media: The RSF reported individuals and companies sometimes filed lawsuits against media outlets critical of them, which led smaller outlets with similar lawsuits to practice self-censorship.
Libel/Slander Laws: Under the law slander is an offense punishable by six months’ to two years’ imprisonment or a fine. During the year the law was not used by the government or individual public figures to restrict public discussion or retaliate against journalists or political opponents.
National Security: Human rights groups criticized as overly broad the antiterrorism law, particularly the part of the penal code that criminalizes the glorification of terrorism, which they maintained limits the right to freedom of expression.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content. There were reports the government may have monitored online communications of Catalan proindependence politicians, although the government maintained it has proper legal authority (see section 1.f.). Authorities monitored websites for material containing hate speech or promoting antisemitism or terrorism.
e. Protection of Refugees
The government has an established system for providing protection to refugees. Organizations working with refugees reported a generally well-functioning refugee reception system in the country and improved management of irregular migrant arrivals to the country’s coasts, particularly to the Canary Islands. Irregular land and sea migration decreased by nearly 20 percent during the year compared with the same period in 2021, with 28,926 arrivals as of November 15, according to the data from the Ministry of Interior. Sea arrivals decreased by almost 22 percent (26,839 arrivals as of November 15). According to UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the government’s limited resources for evaluating new arrivals continued to make it difficult for the government to distinguish between economic migrants and those seeking international protection.
The government cooperated with UNHCR, International Organization for Migration (IOM), and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, or asylum seekers, as well as other persons of concern. As of October 31, the government granted refugee status to 5,826 individuals and subsidiary protection to another 5,800 individuals. Another 15,044 individuals received protection for humanitarian reasons.
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 survivor of gender-based violence (GBV) or of trafficking in persons to file a complaint at a police station without fear of deportation, even if that individual has undocumented status.
The Ministry of the Interior continued to reduce the backlog of pending asylum claims through increased staffing and improved processes and interagency coordination. Organizations working with refugees reported that despite these improvements, individuals seeking to make asylum claims still faced significant obstacles. Individuals were often unable to obtain online appointments to submit initial asylum applications to the Ministry of the Interior. One NGO working with refugees reported criminal groups reserve all the asylum appointments when the ministry first makes them available, then sell the appointments to asylum seekers using popular buy-and-sell marketplace applications. As a result, many asylum seekers are forced to pay criminal organizations to submit an asylum claim, and non-Spanish speaking asylum seekers faced challenges in obtaining appointments in a timely manner. NGOs and UNHCR reported wait times for asylum appointments may be several months to a year and that wait times for follow-up appointments may be more than one year.
UNHCR reported the need for additional training for officers responsible for conducting asylum interviews in accordance with UNHCR standards and EU regulations. UNHCR also cited the need for additional specialized interpreters and tools to provide for quality standards for asylum interviews. Individuals who enter the country by irregular means are held in centers for temporary assistance for foreigners (CATEs) under police supervision for initial reception, biometric intake, and processing. The law permits individuals to be held in CATEs for a maximum of 72 hours. UNHCR continued to report the need for increased mechanisms in CATEs to allow individuals to apply for asylum during their initial 72 hours in the country, citing the ability to apply for asylum in CATEs to be rare and unevenly applied. The European Asylum and Support Office established a presence in the Canary Islands in 2021 and during the year assisted with vulnerable migrants identified as having potential protection needs. It did not assist with processing asylum claims.
The Spanish Commission for Refugee Assistance (CEAR) continued to urge the government to apply fully the section of the law that allows for the receipt of asylum petitions at Spanish embassies and consulates abroad. CEAR reported some Spanish embassies began implementing policies to allow Afghan nationals to request international protection while outside of the country, particularly in Pakistan and Iran, and formalize their asylum requests once in Spain. CEAR encouraged the government to extend these policies to all individuals in need of international protection, regardless of nationality.
UNHCR reported that 98,098 individuals had filed asylum claims in the country as of the end of October, an increase of 97 percent from the same period in 2021. Of these, Venezuelans and Colombians accounted for 69 percent of applications. As of October 31, a total of 38,073 Venezuelans applied for asylum in the country, which at 39 percent of all applicants constituted the largest group of asylum seekers and represented a significant increase from the same period in 2021. As of October 31, UNHCR reported a 16 percent asylum recognition rate and a 37 percent protection rate, including persons in refugee status, subsidiary protection, and those granted authorization to stay for humanitarian reasons.
According to CEAR’s annual report, 65,404 individuals applied for asylum in the country in 2021, a 26 percent decrease from 2020. The government granted 2,017 applications for subsidiary protection and offered 12,983 individuals international protection for humanitarian reasons, primarily Venezuelans (see Temporary Protection). Large percentages of applicants from Colombia (93 percent), El Salvador (94 percent), Nicaragua (75 percent), and Honduras (87 percent) did not receive either asylum status or other protection. CEAR reported the country’s overall recognition rate for international protection in 2021 was 10.55 percent (7,371 persons), double that in 2020.
Refoulement: UNHCR continued to report instances of summary returns, denying individuals the opportunity to request international protection, from Ceuta, Melilla, the Chafarinas Islands, and small outposts under Spanish sovereignty, including Peñon de Velez de la Gomera.
In September the European Commission opened an infringement proceeding against Spain for failing to comply with EU rules on returning illegally staying third-country nationals by not incorporating EU rules in its national legislation correctly.
Bilateral agreements with Morocco and Algeria allow Spain to deport 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. The ombudsman and NGOs continued to criticize this practice, known as “hot returns.” In response to a parliamentary inquiry, the government reported repatriating 1,720 individuals as of November 14, 2021, and 1,824 individuals in 2020 under these agreements, although it did not provide specific numbers for those repatriated 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.
CEAR criticized the government for not making public agreements and memoranda of understanding it has signed with countries including Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania, and Senegal related to security cooperation and migration. CEAR reported that because the agreements were not made public, they could not be evaluated for their impact on human rights and nonrefoulement of individuals seeking international protection. On March 24, Spain deported activist Mohamed Benhalima to Algeria, citing an Algerian terrorism investigation into Benhalima. On March 29, 14 human rights organizations signed a statement condemning Benhalima’s deportation, stating he faced risks of torture and serious human rights abuses in Algeria and accusing the Spanish government of being in violation of its international obligations of nonrefoulement. According to Amnesty International, on May 8, Benhalima was informed that he was sentenced to death in absentia.
There were several court cases in Ceuta and Andalusia regarding the alleged refoulement of children to Morocco following the May 2021 entry into Ceuta and Melilla of as many as 2,000 unaccompanied children. The ombudsman and rights groups condemned the deportations, claiming they violated the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child as well as the country’s immigration laws. In February a Ceuta court ordered the return to Spain of 14 children whom the court ruled had been deported without due process and against their will. In June the Andalusia High Court ordered the return of another eight children deported from Ceuta to Morocco under similar circumstances. Another case involving 12 children is pending before the Andalusia High Court. The Andalusia High Court also opened an investigation into Salvadora Mateos, the former government delegate in Ceuta, and Mabel Deu, the vice president of the Ceuta government, for their roles in the deportations of 55 children. In November a Ceuta court opened a trial against both defendants.
Abuse of Migrants and Refugees: On June 24, at least 23 migrants died attempting to cross from Morocco into Spain’s North African enclave of Melilla. The deaths occurred when up to 2,000 persons, primarily from sub-Saharan Africa, attempted to enter Spain. Several Spanish NGOs, including Caminando Fronteras (Walking Borders), put the death toll as high as 40. Several migrants who were interviewed by Spanish media claimed Moroccan security officials beat to death many of the migrants. Several NGOs stated Spanish law enforcement pushed back migrants from the fence separating Melilla from Morocco. Spain’s chief prosecutor, ombudsman, and the UN International Independent Expert Mechanism for Racial Justice and Equality announced investigations into the events. In October an ombudsman’s report accused the Ministry of the Interior of violating Spanish and international law when it expelled 470 migrants in the incident. On December 23, the prosecutor’s office closed its case after determining there was no evidence to conclude Spanish law enforcement actions increased the risk of the migrant deaths.
In late June thousands of demonstrators in several Spanish cities railed against Spain’s migration policies under the banner “Black Lives Matter.” The NGO SOS Racismo (SOS Racism) called the government’s reaction to the deaths racist, claiming it would have responded differently if those killed had not been Black. Several NGOs criticized the country’s migration policy – which focuses on preventing the irregular entry of all individuals to its territory, regardless of potential claims for international protection – as contributing to the deaths. The ombudsman’s office and NGOs maintained that several of the migrants pushed back into Morocco met profiles of those requiring international protection.
In March Amnesty International and other NGOs filed a complaint with the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, accusing police of brutality against migrants following the release of a video by press that showed police officers beating and pepper spraying a young man as he climbed over the border fence between Melilla and Morocco during the March 2-3 migration surge into the enclave. The ombudsman asked the Ministry of Interior for an investigation.
UNHCR, NGOs, and the Office of the Ombudsman continued to cite concerns regarding the treatment of unaccompanied and accompanied child migrants. CEAR stated the government continues to use obsolete tests for age determinations of individuals who report they are younger than age 18, resulting in many children being legally determined to be adults. UNHCR reported the tests could take several months, delaying children’s’ access to benefits. The NGO reported instances in which the government performed age determination tests even after an individual presented a passport or other documentation indicating they were a child, in violation of rulings by the Supreme Court in 2021 prohibiting this practice. UNHCR reported centers housing unaccompanied children in the Canary Islands continued to be extremely overcrowded.
On September 13, the ombudsman expressed concern regarding the lack of assistance for migrants in centers for temporary assistance for foreigners and encouraged the creation of a better process for migrants to file complaints of mistreatment. The ombudsman’s office annual report for 2021 highlighted the need in these centers for adequate video surveillance, the removal of lists of previous occupants’ names, improved measures to prevent self-harm or suicidal behavior, improved access to legal assistance, and adequate translation equipment. The report also recommended security officers not carry weapons inside the centers. The ombudsman also noted that many cases of repatriation flights lacked advance notification and that individuals were handcuffed for the duration of the flight in many instances.
Freedom of Movement: Following a 2021 court ruling in the Canary Islands that migrants with a passport or a request for international protection may travel to the mainland in accordance with pandemic-related health restrictions, UNHCR and NGOs reported improved freedom of movement for migrants who arrived in the Canary Islands. UNHCR reported, however, NGOs that manage the reception centers in the Canary Islands are required to request authorization from police to transfer groups of asylum seekers to the mainland.
Employment: In October 2021, the country updated its immigration regulations to allow migrants to apply for work authorizations starting at age 16 and to allow undocumented migrants between ages 18 and 23 who had previously been unaccompanied children under the care of the government before the regulations took effect to do the same. As of June, more than 9,300 migrants between 16 and 23 had work permits and another 1,200 individuals were in the application process.
Access to Basic Services: In accordance with the law, all children younger than age 16 must be enrolled in school. In the Canary Islands, many of the child migrants were not enrolled in school more than one year after their arrival. CEAR reported juvenile centers in Ceuta and Melilla, which are responsible for caring for unaccompanied child migrants, were overcrowded and in poor condition. As a result, some children told authorities they were older than age 18 to avoid being sent to a juvenile center, which is under the jurisdiction of the regional government, and to instead be sent to a temporary reception center for foreigners (CETI), which is under the jurisdiction of the national government. UNHCR reported many children ran away from juvenile centers in Ceuta and Melilla, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation.
Durable Solutions: The government accepted refugees for relocation and resettlement and aided through NGOs such as CEAR, Accem, and the Spanish Red Cross. In accordance with the country’s National Resettlement Plan, the government formally resettled 581 individuals – mostly Syrians – from Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan as of May 6. In 2021 the government formally resettled 526 individuals. UNHCR reported the country has increased its resettlement commitment and plans to likely resettle 1,000 refugees, mostly Syrian, by the end of the year. The government welcomed more than 1,300 at-risk Afghans during the year in addition to the military airlift evacuations from Kabul conducted in 2021. The Ministry of the Interior reported granting refugee status to 5,826 individuals as of October 31 and to 5,365 individuals in 2021.
In August the country introduced significant reforms to its immigration law that included provisions to expand access to residency permits and work authorizations for undocumented immigrants. Individuals who have lived in the country at least two years and worked for at least six months – no matter the legal status of employment or whether self-employed – are eligible to apply for residency and work permits. The regulatory change also permits undocumented immigrants living in the country for at least three years to apply for residency permits if they secure a job contract for at least 30 hours of work per week, or 20 hours if they have children under their care. The updated regulation includes a provision to grant residency permits to undocumented immigrants who agree to complete a worker training program in sectors facing labor shortages.
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: As a result of Russia’s war in Ukraine, in March the country implemented the EU’s Temporary Protection Directive (TPD) and extended the TPD’s protections to all Ukrainians present in Spain prior to February 24, including students, tourists, and undocumented Ukrainians already living in Spain. It also extended protections to third country nationals previously residing in Ukraine, whether as permanent residents or temporarily, such as students. The government instituted simplified procedures for temporary protection applications to provide for a turnaround time of less than 24 hours and automatic conferral of residence and work permits, as well as social benefits including access to the public health system and schooling. The Ministry of Inclusion, Social Security, and Migration (Ministry of Inclusion) launched a hotline and a website in Spanish and Ukrainian and opened reception centers in Madrid, Barcelona, Alicante, and Malaga to assist new arrivals. The centers, each managed by a partner refugee assistance NGO, provide initial orientation and temporary shelter, assistance with applying for temporary protection and obtaining residency and work permits, assistance with identifying job opportunities for adults and school enrollment for children, and transportation to Spain’s various regions to NGO-provided short-term housing or to stay with family or friends. UNHCR, IOM, and NGOs commended the government’s rapid and effective response. As of November 3, the Ministry of the Interior reported granting temporary protection to 151,620 individuals fleeing Ukraine. As of November 15, the Ministry of Inclusion reported it has assisted 84,146 individuals in the four reception centers and provided housing for 11,921 individuals. NGOs report as many as 15 percent of Ukrainians who have arrived in the country since the start of the war are believed to have since departed.
The government provided temporary protection to individuals whose applications for asylum were pending review or who did not qualify as refugees. The Ministry of the Interior reported that as of October 31, the government granted international subsidiary protection to 5,800 individuals. Additionally, the government granted one-year residency permits (which may be extended to two years) on humanitarian grounds to 15,044 applicants, most of them from Venezuela (14,732), with much lower numbers to individuals from Colombia (174), Peru (26), Panama (21), and Chile (18). The Ministry of the Interior reported that in 2021 the government granted international subsidiary protection to 2,026 individuals. Additionally, the government granted one-year residency permits on humanitarian grounds to 13,020 applicants, most of them from Venezuela (12,853), with very few granted to individuals from Colombia (53), Ukraine (25), Peru (23), and El Salvador (8).
According to the Ministry of the Interior, the country provides humanitarian protection to Venezuelans who do not qualify for other types of international protection in the country, including asylum. Humanitarian protection provides residency and work authorization for one year, which may be extended. UNHCR called on the government to find a longer-term protection status for Venezuelans granted humanitarian protection to facilitate their integration and alleviate the administrative burden on the government caused by the annual renewal of humanitarian protection permits.