On the afternoon of Friday, August 20, two days after Spain launched the European Union hub for the reception of Afghan refugees, a US colonel visited the Torrejón de Ardoz air base, 30 kilometers away. from his job: the American embassy in the central Salamanca district of Madrid.
Officer David Allen Carlson, Defense Attaché, traveled to the east of the community to see first-hand what he had seen on television and read in the press. How is it possible that in just 24 hours a group of Spanish soldiers had set up a fully conditioned camp for 800 people on the airport runway? The only answer was to go see for yourself.
Carlson, who arrived at his destination last March, was greeted by his uniformed colleagues at the military compound. The air attaché asked about the functioning of the entire inter-ministerial operation for the reception and reception of Afghan aid workers and their families. But he put special interest in the passenger transit center, built by the Military Emergency Unit (UME) in record time.
The air-conditioned ‘polyhedral igloos’, which are used as modular accommodation for families of six; the multipurpose dining room for 200 people; the potable water and electricity supply network; or recreation areas for children. A “habitable space” set up against the clock by 150 members of the Emergency Support Group (GAEM) of the UME, based in the same base in Torrejón de Ardoz.
The colonel’s visit was not routine. Not much less. It laid the foundations for the agreement announced a day later by Spain and the United States. On Saturday, August 21, precisely, there was a call from President Joe Biden to Pedro Sánchez to “praise the Spanish leadership” in seeking international support for Afghan women and girls. They chatted for 25 minutes, leaving behind the brief corridor meeting of the last NATO summit in Brussels, held last June.
The tenant of the White House also thanked Sánchez for the Spanish help so that the bases of Rota (Cádiz) and Morón de la Frontera (Seville) – nationally owned but shared with the Americans – welcome Washington collaborators while it closes its transit to third countries. They can accommodate up to 4,000 people with a maximum stay of 14 days, according to the “memorandum of understanding” initialed last Monday.
Shops and charities
However, the operational and bureaucratic complexity to replicate the Torrejón camp in these bases made the US authorities settle for preparing common living spaces to receive Afghan refugees (this Friday the first 800 arrived in two planes in Rota).
At the Cadiz air-naval base, home to the four US missile shield destroyers, the gym is closed for its 2,800 marines for the duration of the device. The swimming pools, basketball courts or bowling alley are not open either. In addition, 20 tents with capacity for 20 people each have been erected on the baseball field. This material was loaned by the Tercio de Armada Unit, based in San Fernando. The Marines themselves took care of its assembly in one day.
The well-known charity of the Americans was evident in the appeal made by the non-profit organization ‘Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society’ of Rota. He asked the military population for all kinds of belongings to make life easier for the refugees: from clothes, toys, baby wipes, diapers or formula milk to camp beds or mattresses. “Clothes should be discreet and shoes should be light and sandal-like,” they suggested to suit their culture and traditions.
The appeal had a direct effect not only on Rota stores, but also on the shelves of two large areas of a well-known sports equipment chain, located in the neighboring cities of Jerez de la Frontera and El Puerto de Santa María.
130 kilometers north of Rota is the Morón de la Frontera air base. It is a key center due to its strategic position for crisis response in Africa and Asia.
The Spanish civilian employees of the base have been in charge of equipping the facilities to receive the Afghan collaborators from the United States and their families. They have prepared a large bunkhouse with air conditioning and smoke detectors, which is used as a multifunctional space. And the rooms where expats are staying take up the space typically used by marines in transit.
«We have worked on the fitting out of the building with great enthusiasm. It is the least we can do to make them look as good as possible, like in a hotel, considering the hell they come from, “says a spokesman for the KBR committee, the company that maintains the North American facilities. It is the first humanitarian mission of these 350 employees, who also provide logistics support services, civil engineering, ambulance, health, industrial hygiene or postal services. But they had never collaborated on such a task before.
The Spanish factor
The Spanish response to the Afghan refugee crisis, in any case, has a different dimension. Neither better nor worse than the American one, but more comprehensive. Protection standards are much broader due to the experience accumulated over years with vulnerable people. For example, migrants who access Spain by air but also by sea in boats.
The team that directs the General Directorate of Inclusion and Humanitarian Attention in the Torrejón base has fifty people. Added to them is the technical support of the Red Cross volunteers. If the UME set up the facilities for the refugees to live in just 24 hours, the ministry’s multidisciplinary team took the same time to have the machinery greased in three areas: health, assistance and bureaucracy. Another note that surprised US diplomats and European leaders, who visited the temporary stay camp (72 hours maximum) on Saturday, August 21.
Úrsula Von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, and her colleague from the European Council, Charles Michel, were also interested in the care system and the family modules set up by GAEM. Some polyvalent habitation cells (cehapos) and their modular accommodation, the so-called “rocahedra”, whose distribution is differentiated for women and their children, while men rest in two barracks with capacity for 200 people in bunk beds.
“The incorporation of the Armed Forces into emergency management is a consequence of their ability to adapt to face a dynamic environment of change, compressed in response times, with heterogeneous scenarios and operating environments in constant transformation,” says a person in charge of the UME from anonymity (the Ministry of Defense has not processed the authorization requested by this newspaper).
In sum, the praised setting up of the Torrejón camp is the direct consequence of the experience accumulated by the unit: close to 600 interventions of all kinds in its 15 years of life. “Success resides in a capabilities model that combines specialization, power and numbers in a stable balance,” sums up the officer consulted. It is no coincidence that 55 countries have visited the EMU, taking an interest in its organization and operation.
«Rocaedros», the successful modular accommodation
Last May a decade was fulfilled since the UME established its first single camp for victims in the Murcian town of Lorca. A 5.1 magnitude earthquake left nine dead, more than 300 injured and significant material damage in this city of 93,000 inhabitants. The military erected temporary facilities that housed about 1,400 people for about half a year.
That unfortunate experience on the ground served to draw some conclusions and improve the operational reaction to future disasters or humanitarian interventions, as in Torrejón with the Afghan refugees. Three years later, in 2013, after a visit by the head of the UME to the General Marvá Army Engineering Laboratory in Madrid, a joint working group was created to adapt the design of a camp that would have to be projected in a marine container 20 feet (about six meters).
The then captain Enrique Rocabert, a polytechnic engineer, developed his doctoral thesis on the Recoverable Modular Accommodation (AMR). After his research, he designed a modular projectable system for a permanence of up to six months. The idea would allow it to adapt to future needs and its design could be modified to increase its habitability.
After its development, Captain Rocabert, supported by his brother and also an architect, continued his research to improve the plan by resizing the panels and using new materials to improve their performance. The project was the basis for a study carried out by the Laboratory of Engineers on sustainable accommodation where photovoltaic cells were used to obtain energy, rainwater collection and hot water production equipment.
Finally, fiberglass modules were built to house up to six people, which allows the grouping of evacuees in family units. It has electrical and air conditioning installation, beds, bunk beds and lockers. At the base of Torrejón, 20 “rocahedrons” have been mounted.