The number of migrants arriving by boat to Spain has rocketed by 60 per cent this year as the EU faces the nightmare prospect of a fresh front opening up in the Mediterranean.
Official figures show that 6,400 people have been rescued making the crossing from Morocco and Algeria after smugglers slashed the price of the sea journey to just £800.
Aid vessels intercepted eight boats carrying 380 people in just five days between last Wednesday and Sunday as the route becomes ever more popular with migrants hoping to avoid war-torn Libya.
The spike in arrivals means the crossing to Spain is now almost as popular as the one to Greece, the country that was the main entry point to Europe until the EU adopted a returns pact with Turkey.
Rescue workers say the number of people attempting the short but perilous sea journey to the southern coast of Spain is the highest registered in years and is continuing to rise at an alarming rate.
Italy remains by far the biggest recipient of migrants rescued in the Mediterranean, taking in 85,000 of the 100,000 who have made the Mediterranean crossing this year.But Spain is becoming an increasingly popular entry point with more than 6,400 people attempting the journey in the first six months of this year, compared to 8,100 during the whole of 2016.
That is because many people on their way to Europe are increasingly looking to avoid travelling through war torn Libya, the main launchpad to Italy, due to the huge dangers involved in doing so.
There have been reports of migrants being forced into slavery once arriving in the lawless North African state, whilst its detention facilities for migrants are said to be inhumane.
European authorities have also at long last begun to crack down on migrant smugglers in the country and aid workers say harder controls on making the crossing will force people further along the coastline.
To capitalise on this people smugglers have slashed their prices for the Spain crossing by more than half, down from £1,770 per person last year to just £800 now, with tragic consequences.
Last week an inflatable dinghy with at least 69 people on board capsized just a few miles off the Spanish coast, with many of the occupants drowning as horrified British tourists watched on.
The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) called the incident, from which there were only three survivors, “the worst tragedy in the last decade in the Spanish Mediterranean”.
One of the fears is that the Alboran Sea, which connects Morocco and Spain, represents a short and cheap crossing for people smugglers but its strong currents are perilous to small craft like dinghies.
Mikel Araguas, from the Spanish branch of charity SOS Racisme, told Euractiv: “We are worried because we are seeing numbers which we have not seen in years. And it’s a dangerous area, where the currents are very strong.”
The prospect of yet another major front opening up in the Mediterranean is a serious concern for European leaders who are struggling to respond to the unprecedented arrivals in Italy.
Rome has warned that its reception centres are close to collapse whilst EU capitals bicker over the best way to help the country and bring down the numbers of arrivals in the future.
In recent weeks some ministers have significantly toughened their tone, talking openly about sending boats back to North Africa and hugely upping deportations of economic migrants.