Small canoes piled next to each other on a waterway

‘I put myself in their shoes’: Migrants to Europe find empathy on a small island

While most of Europe is getting tough on migrants and asylum-seekers, residents on one Canary island are taking a more friendly approach to newcomers. The people of El Hierro, part of the Spanish archipelago, say they can relate to the long journey many people make in search of a better life — because it reflects their own recent history.

The World

Tens of thousands of mostly Senegalese migrants have puttered into the island of El Hierro, the smallest and westernmost of the Canaries.

They’re fleeing poverty and unrest and often arrive sick, hungry and thirsty. They’re taken to shelters, leaving behind a rapidly growing flotilla of rickety wooden vessels located at the pier where they arrive. 

In one harbor, there are so many boats that authorities have hired a contractor to smash and burn them.

trash found in a boat from migrants
The bottom of a typical cayuco, or migrant boat, is littered with garbage and the supplies migrants brought along to stay warm and safe.Gerry Hadden/The World

Watching from a nearby boardwalk, fisherman Francis Albert Suarez and his elderly aunt, Flora Suarez Gutierrez, said they feel anguish with each overcrowded vessel that arrives.

Things have to be rough back home for those folks to come here, Suarez Gutierrez said. The journey takes days to navigate on the ocean.

“And how many of them have just disappeared on the journey?” Albert Suarez said.

Some nongovernmental organizations estimate up to a quarter of the migrants on this route are never heard from again. 

ambulance bringing someone in
By the time migrants from Senegal and other West African countries reach the Canaries, they’re usually exhausted and malnourished. Red Cross workers and volunteers get them medical attention and a warm place to sleep.Gerry Hadden/The World

Albert Suarez said he empathizes because he once nearly lost his own father somewhere out there in the blue. He’d gone out on a routine fishing trip.

“The engine on my dad’s boat broke down, and they drifted for nine days. They had no food and barely any water,” he told The World.

Albert Suarez said the family was distraught as they waited for news.

“By a miracle, he was rescued,” he said. “So when I see these migrants, I put myself in their shoes.”

Suarez’s empathy seems pretty widespread in El Hierro, in part because nearly every family has their own harrowing high seas story to tell. Whether they fish or not. 

In the not-so-distant past, los Herreños, as islanders are called, found themselves in pretty much the same boat as the migrants arriving here today.

Police officer in the forefront watching a group of individuals load a bus
A police officer watches as hundreds of recently-arrived migrants and asylum-seekers board a ferry from La Gomera island to the capital of the Canaries, Tenerife. From there they’ll be sent to different detention centers on the mainland as authorities determine whether they can stay in Spain. This rapid process means there are not huge numbers of migrants on La Gomera at any given moment, and it’s one reason locals don’t feel resentment or fear as more and more mostly sub-Saharan Africans putter ashore here.Gerry Hadden/The World

Before the 1950s, El Hierro’s population was about 17,000 people. Several thousand of those people fled in desperation after the Spanish Civil War, leaving at night on clandestine ships. 

The ships were clandestine because, at the time, Spanish dictator Francisco Franco did not allow anyone to leave Spain, according to historian Emilio Hernandez.

Hernandez also said that in 1948, a massive drought hit, and islanders, mostly farmers and shepherds, began looking to the Americas for salvation.

But reaching salvation was not easy. 

Most smuggler ships were hardly seaworthy, sporting ragged sails and cracked hulls. 

Nicolás Acosta was a passenger of a ship called the Nuevo Adan. Samuel Acosta’s grandson, a shepherd and seed collector in El Hierro, recounted his grandfather’s story. 

“They ran out of food at sea and then water,” he said.” Finally, they decided to draw straws. To choose who among them they would sacrifice. To eat.”

Acosta said hunger wasn’t even the cruelest part … It was the thirst. 

The backside of a man wearing a grey cap who is point out to a body of water
Local La Gomera shepherd Samuel Acosta looks out over the Atlantic. His own grandfather was once a migrant too, fleeing for Venezuela in the 1950s when famine and drought were driving Canary Island residents to the brink of starvation. Acosta says that’s why locals feel such empathy for the migrants reaching La Gomera today.Gerry Hadden/The World

“They were drinking seawater and getting sick,” he said.

And then a miracle happened.

All 124 passengers on the Nuevo Adan survived and made it to the Orinoco River of Venezuela. Many, including Nicolás Acosta, eventually returned to El Hierro, with fortunes great or small. 

Fisherman Alberto Suarez said he understands why they returned.

“It’s home,” he said. 

And it’s why he feels for the Senegalese migrants today.

men playing soccer on a field
Underaged Senegalese teens practice with a local soccer team in La Gomera. The young migrants can’t be deported and end up living in a special shelter here until they turn 18. The local soccer coach decided they’d feel better with some exercise.Gerry Hadden/The World

“If you have everything you need at home, where you’re from…” Suarez said. “You don’t leave. It’s that simple.”

But if you do have to go, said Venancio Acosta, another island historian, you’d do best to remember those who helped you along the way. His grandfather sailed in secret for Venezuela, too.

“There are so many similarities between our families’ escape and the Senegalese who are coming this way today,” he added.

“In fact, my grandfather’s boat stopped in Senegal for supplies. The fishermen there gave them food. How could we not repay the kindness?”

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.