Madrid — Southern European states including Italy and Spain are urging NATO allies to address threats from North Africa, after the alliance agreed on a new "strategic concept" at its summit last week in Madrid.
While the war in Ukraine dominates NATO's agenda, member states bordering the Mediterranean want the alliance to prepare for other potential flashpoints from the south, including a rapid increase in irregular migration. Spain warned it could be used as a pressure tactic by what it called "hostile actors."
Hundreds of migrants attempted to breach the border fence separating the Spanish enclave of Melilla from Morocco last month. At least 23 people died during the attempted crossing. The migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, are desperate to reach Europe to claim asylum and find a better life.
Many migrants also arrive by boat on the Spanish Canary Islands, 100 kilometers off the African coast. The numbers arriving in the first six months of the year have more than doubled since 2021 -- and Spain fears the pressure on its borders could be about to worsen.
Ukraine is one of the world's top suppliers of grain, but the Russian invasion has cut its exports by around two-thirds. The United Nations has warned that the situation will exacerbate an already worsening hunger crisis in Africa. Europe is readying for an increase in migration.
"We have been looking at whether there is more movement of people linked to the increase in prices, to the difficulty of these countries in accessing grain and wheat," Txema Santana, a migration advisor to the government of the Canary Islands, told the Reuters news agency. "What we have been told is that for the moment there is not, but it is a matter of time."
A resurgent Islamist militancy in parts of the Sahel is also driving migrant flows. Europe also says Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group are exacerbating the conflict. The European Union has imposed sanctions on the Wagner Group, which it says works for the Kremlin. Moscow denies any links but says it is providing "military assistance" through state channels.
"It is very clear that the Wagner company is there and that there are foreign troops in several countries of the Sahel," Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares told the Reuters news agency last month. "And definitely it is not foreign troops that the Sahel needs. What the Sahel needs is development and stability," he added.
Spain is seeking international help. In March it struck a deal with Morocco to secure a clampdown on irregular migration.
"What the war in Ukraine meant for this migratory route is that Morocco changed its international relations profile, accentuated it, and proposed a change in relations with Spain to ensure that at this time of conflict the arrival of people would be lower. In return, Spain was asked, among other things, to change its diplomatic relations with Western Sahara.
"Spain has accepted this and this is leading to many geopolitical changes and will lead to many changes in the borders and the situation of migrants in Western Sahara and Morocco," explained government adviser Txema Santana.
Critics accuse Madrid of outsourcing migration policy to a country with a history of human rights abuses.
The Moroccan Association for Human Rights, along with the Spanish migration charity Walking Borders, cited the incident at the Morocco-Melilla border in June, describing it as a "tragic symbol of European policies of externalizing borders of the EU."
A Moroccan official told Reuters that security personnel "had not used undue force."
At last week's NATO summit, Spain secured official recognition by the alliance of the threats emanating from North Africa. At a press conference at the close of the summit, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said he had achieved his aims for the meeting.
"We are really glad to have included the southern flank in the strategic concept ... especially about the African sub-Saharan and Sahel area, which is one of the major concerns for Europe and particularly for our country as a consequence of instability and risks coming from the irregular flux of migrants, terrorism, food crisis, energy crisis and the climate emergency too," Sanchez said.
Meanwhile, NATO forces held exercises in recent days just off the Spanish and North African coasts. The FLOTEX-22 drills included forces from Spain, Britain, Belgium and the United States, along with other European units integrated into the EU's maritime force.
Residents of the Spanish town of Tarifa had a front-row view of the drills. One resident, who asked not to be named, welcomed the focus on North Africa.
"It is a very unstable area; it is a ticking time bomb, you know what the Maghreb is, anything can come of it, a war, conflict," he told VOA. He was referring to northwestern Africa, including Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia.
Spain maintains it is not calling for any NATO intervention in North Africa, but instead recognition of what it calls hybrid threats.
VOA's Alfonso Beato contributed to this report.