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Summer of 1984: The Largest Migratory Operation on the Planet

Martin Serrano

At the start of summer in 1984, tourists and sunbathers, quietly enjoying a day at the beach on the coast of San Roque and Sabinillas, were surprised by a brutal traffic jam that stretched for over 50 kilometres, from the entrance of Algeciras to the outskirts of Estepona.

The extreme congestion paralyzed the entire N-340 motorway for 24 hours. The chaos was caused by the massive arrival of Moroccan travellers in packed, ramshackle vehicles, much to the amazement of the authorities who had not foreseen ‘such an onslaught’.

It was also due to the inability of the port of Algeciras – as well as the ships that were then taking people across the Straits to Ceuta – to cater for this influx of people. At the same time, there were large numbers of families on holiday, coming from different European countries – including other parts of Spain.

We were at the beginning of the most significant migration episode previously known to the world. The Red Cross and other humanitarian associations were deployed to distribute water and sandwiches to the travellers.

There was a constant air of tension and anger felt by the Moroccans, who were tired and coming to the end of long journeys from other parts of Europe, only to find that there were long delays to cross the Straits. Added to that, were the local people, who were forced to spend hours upon hours on the road with no possibility of escape.

At one point, 50,000 people were counted, with the shipping companies having a limited capacity of 22,000 daily passengers. Episodes of confrontations with the police became frequent, while civilians and politicians improvised measures to help deal with this migratory phenomenon that grew bigger and bigger as time went by.

Summer 1984 Operation Crossing the Strait

The Administration’s response was to implement the first Civil Protection plan in 1987. Initially, the plan was to offer the necessary humanitarian attention to the thousands of people caught up in the mess, as well as to adapt the ports to try and make passage as smooth as possible.

The Port Authority commissioned a plan of care for travellers to reduce tensions. It was then that communication teams were formed in order to keep the travellers informed in their own languages, as well as teams known as ‘pollitos’ (chicks) to direct traffic.

This improvement in communication led to a substantial decrease in the number of clashes. Later, and in addition to teams of helpers, a tent was erected for use as a mosque, as were information panels, children’s activities were organised and many other services that cover the most basic needs of those involved.

Over the years, the shipping companies have addressed these issues by providing more ships and a single boarding card for everyone, which prevented passengers from jumping queues when embarking to their country of origin.

Operation Crossing the Strait

Situations of collapse did occur, but these became fewer and fewer over time. The performance of the personnel of ‘Operation Crossing the Strait’ was improved as lessons were learned.

Today, the congestion has almost disappeared, even though more than three million people travel through the region over a few days – especially at the end of July and beginning of August – in the largest migratory movement in the world, with almost one million vehicles crossing the Strait.

Most of these vehicles now are high or medium-end, driven by second generation immigrants who, together with their parents and grandparents – who were involved in the Dantesque scenes several years ago – are now able to easily cross over into Africa, leaving their belongings at home in Europe.

A Record Year

As always, the first Moroccans will arrive, little by little. They will be individually identified and checked on the Spanish roads and then, if there are no setbacks, the reception operation will be ready to receive the migratory avalanche.

A record was set in 2018 in nine Spanish ports– including the ports of Algeciras and Tarifa – with 3.2 million passengers and 735,240 vehicles being accounted for between the 15th of June and the 15th of September . The numbers are expected to be exceeded this year.

The Special Civil Protection Plan have identified ‘critical days’ for the operation. This year, from July 27th to the 30th, and August 1st to the 5th and then the 9th to the 10th, have been identified as potential ‘critical days’ during the exit phase of this process.

The biggest influx of people are expected to arrive between the 30th and the 2nd of September during the return phase. During this period of time, the critical dates will coincide with those of last year and the ‘Feast of the Lamb’ on August 11th. The last weekend of July and the first of August will be the weekends with the highest traffic.

Both the Guardia Civil and the Spanish National Police are preparing reinforcements and personnel for ‘Operation Crossing the Straits’, bearing in mind that it coincides with the largest influx of immigrants and tourists.

Due to previous successes , the General Directorate of Traffic (DGT) will monitor the incoming influxes, which will begin the moment the first vehicle enters Spain.

The DGT plan has been established based on three sections: surveillance of the main corridors at state level, communication and updates via social media and websites, and the signalling plan.

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