Rescue workers carry the body of a dead migrant after a boat with 35 migrants from the Maghreb region capsized at the beach of Orzola, in the Canary Island of Lanzarote, Spain, Nov. 25, 2020.

Canary Islands face influx of migrants from West Africa

About 20,000 African migrants have reached the Spanish archipelago this year, half of whom arrived in the last two months alone. More than 500 have died attempting the journey.

The World

Mohamed left his home country of Senegal in September. Along with dozens of others, mostly men, he boarded a colorful wooden boat — the type commonly used by Senegalese fishermen — and headed for Spain’s Canary Islands, just 60 miles off the northwest coast of Africa.

Mohamed is just one of more than 20,000 migrants to reach Spain’s Canary Islands this year — ten times more than arrived last year. Half arrived in the last two months alone. But Spain's overcrowded immigration centers are not prepared for the influx. 

Mohamed's journey lasted weeks, and since the seas were rough, they arrived dehydrated and tired. But Mohamed says coming to Europe was the only way to help his parents and younger siblings.

“I’m tired of Africa,” he told The World over the phone. “People say, ‘You need to try to make it work [in Senegal].’ No, we already tried, we worked, and we’re still poor.”

Mohamed says he has been working all kinds of jobs since he was 10 years old, when he quit school to make money for the family. He spent some years in Mauritania working as a fisherman until his immigration status there became too complicated. Back in Senegal, he worked as a housecleaner for wealthy families, but friends and colleagues began calling him a homosexual and harassed him for doing traditionally female tasks. Sometimes, he says, they pelted him with rocks in the street.

Related: Fatal crossings of Mediterranean Sea continue

Now that he’s finally made it to Spain, Mohamed says he plans to stay, find a job and then send money back home. But Mohamed, who did not provide his last name for publication for fear of being deported, says his legal status is still unclear. What’s more, his two younger brothers — who left on another boat some weeks after him — drowned while en route.

“My heart hurts very, very much,” he says. “They haven’t even found my brothers’ bodies yet. I’d rather die than go back to Senegal and watch my father and mother suffer.”

‘Haphazard emergency response’

The Canary Islands hadn’t seen an increase of arrivals this big since 2006, when about 35,000 people entered by sea.

More than 500 people have died this year attempting the journey from West Africa to Europe, considered one of the deadliest voyages in the world, according to the International Organization for Migration. They're fleeing economic hardship, climate change and political violence in various West African countries. 

And even though nongovernmental organizations and immigration experts had been warning of a possible surge of crossings this year, Spain was not prepared. Immigration centers are overcrowded and the country’s interior ministry is refusing to transfer migrants to the Spanish mainland, where they could be allocated to other centers — effectively stranding them in the islands.

“What you have is a haphazard emergency response,” says Judith Sunderland, acting deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division at nonprofit organization Human Rights Watch. “And that’s when people’s rights are most at risk.”

She says the Spanish government claims that transferring migrants to the Iberian Peninsula will send the message to other migrants that they should try to cross — and what some politicians call a “pull factor” for migrating. But Sunderland says that logic is flawed.

“People don’t take these risks unless they really feel it’s the best or only option,” she says. “These are frightening trips, where people really look death in the face and are aware of the danger when they get on the boat.”

"These are frightening trips, where people really look death in the face and are aware of the danger when they get on the boat.”

Judith Sunderland, Human Rights Watch

Last month, Sunderland visited a makeshift reception center on a pier in Gran Canaria, where migrants are only supposed to stay 72 hours as they get registered. During that time, they also undergo medical screenings — including PCR tests for the coronavirus — and begin their asylum application process. But Sunderland found some migrants had been there for weeks.

“[They were] crammed into a very small space, into these big field tents without beds, without pillows. One portable toilet per 30, 40 people. No freedom of movement,” she says. “At the time I visited, there were 835 people. Within the next 48 hours, that number had more than doubled.”

The center’s capacity was set at 400 people, but there were more than 2,000 migrants at one point. In late November, after months of pressure from migrants and activists, the Spanish government cleared the dock, though it’s quickly filling up again with new arrivals.

And although Spain has promised to open more migrant centers, Sunderland says they’re not being set up quickly enough. Dozens of hotels — left empty by this year’s lack of tourists — are instead functioning as temporary social housing and quarantine centers. Through government grants, this has allowed certain hotels to keep some of their staff working.

Human rights crisis

Koldobi Velasco, professor of social work at the University of Las Palmas in Gran Canaria, says the recent spike in arrivals is in part due to ramped-up security at other border crossings, which in turn pushes migrants to seek new routes.

For the last few years, the majority of border crossings into Spain took place along the Mediterranean Sea or at the land borders between Morocco and Spain’s two North African enclaves, Ceuta and Melilla. This year, after various crackdowns, crossings at those points have decreased drastically and arrivals in the Canary Islands have grown tenfold.

Velasco says militarizing borders should not be a solution to what she calls a human rights crisis.

“Our immigration policy is connected to the bigger business of war and border security. ... It leaves behind supposed European values like peace and human rights.”

Koldobi Velasco, professor of social work, University of Las Palmas, Gran Canaria

“Our immigration policy is connected to the bigger business of war and border security,” she says, referring to the companies making billions of euros from security machinery and services used at European borders. “It leaves behind supposed European values like peace and human rights.”

Related: Razor wire separating Europe from Africa might come down

Spain — and to a larger extent the European Union — has a history of externalizing border control. Madrid has signed agreements with countries of transit and funneled millions of euros for authorities there to keep migrants from crossing. This was done with Mauritania in 2006 and with Morocco in 2018.

Last month, Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha González said Spain will increase its police presence in Senegal to “track criminal networks” and pledged to ramp up deportations as borders open up again from the pandemic.

But Velasco says the government should be focusing on social services instead — and making sure every person who seeks asylum is given a fair legal process.

“That’s why we’re demanding the creation of safe and legal migratory channels, an end to all kinds of repression, and amnesty for those already here,” says Velasco. “Right now, Spain is sending the message that not all lives matter, and what’s worse, that not all deaths matter either.”

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