The Canary Islands, in Spain, are located about 1,200 kilometers from continental Europe.
But migrants are increasingly risking dangerous journeys from West Africa to reach the archipelago, which in normal times is a tourist hub.
According to data from the Spanish Government, in the first two weeks of November more migrants arrived – 5,275 – than in the last four years combined. The islands have welcomed 16,950 migrants this year, the highest number since 2006.
More than 250 people are known to have died or disappeared trying to reach the islands so far this year, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Experts say there are several factors driving the influx of arrivals, notably restrictions on other routes to Europe such as those to Morocco and Libya.
Others suggest that the economic impact of the coronavirus, conflicts and improving shipping conditions are helping to increase the numbers.
The Canary Islands: just a stopover for migrants?
“Spain is working closely with Morocco and has really tried to seal its borders, trying to prevent arrivals on its own territory [dentro de Marruecos] from Ceuta and Melilla, and preventing any type of boat migration across the Strait of Gibraltar by sea from the Moroccan coast to the Spanish mainland, so many of the people who might otherwise have gone that route have now given back to try the Canary Islands route, “said Judith Sunderland, acting deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division.
“This also reminds us of an axiom of migratory flows, which is that if you close one route, another will open up, because people will try to move no matter what. And human traffickers and those who are paid to help the Candidates for migration are business people, and they will also look for different routes and open them. “
The presence of migrants in the archipelago is causing problems for islanders trying to recover from a disastrous tourist season due to the coronavirus.
The owner of a bar, Miguel González, told the AFP news agency that one of his clients was going to file a complaint with his travel agent, claiming that they had not mentioned the presence of migrants on the island’s beaches.
However, for many migrants, the archipelago will serve as a starting point to reach mainland Spain or other parts of Europe, Sunderland added.
“I believe that at the moment there is no system in the Canary Islands to receive and house people and ensure that, for example, their asylum applications are processed efficiently,” he told Euronews.
‘Quite a disastrous situation’
Migrants arriving in Gran Canaria are initially held at the Arguineguín dock, where the authorities set up a camp with the capacity to accommodate 400 people. At this time, however, the pier is home to about 2,000 people.
“What I saw when I was there, more than a week ago, was a pretty disastrous situation in this city, on the pier where the authorities have set up this makeshift reception center since August where the police identify, process and search everyone, and where they also run health screenings and COVID-19 tests before people are housed elsewhere, “Sunderland said.
“When I visited, I met three women who said they had been there since October 22, which at that time was more than two weeks.
“It was a bad idea from the beginning to set up that kind of receiving and processing center on a dock that, even with the best of intentions, could never really provide the kind of decent material conditions that people deserve.”
Elsewhere on the islands, around 5,000 migrants are staying in hotels and other tourist accommodation that have been left vacant due to restrictions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Alejandro Santana, manager of Labranda Hotels & Resorts, told Euronews that the COVID-19 closures have left the hotels virtually empty for eight to nine months. With that in mind, the hoteliers have decided to help the state try to manage the influx of migrants.
“We have hotels that have been closed for eight or nine months, we have beds available, and they are used to house these migrants,” Santana said. “Many hotel chains are doing this and business is being generated and jobs are being created.
But, he added, the presence of migrants is making the few tourists who come to the islands uncomfortable.
“Tourists are not used to all this, sometimes there are 10 or 15 people on the street who maybe ask tourists for money, maybe they make them feel uncomfortable or unsafe,” Santana added.
Away from tourism, island dwellers, struggling with the effects of COVID-19 restrictions, have also been protesting the influx of migrants.
It has even affected local fishermen, according to Javier Garat, secretary general of the Spanish Fisheries Federation. He said: “There have already been many cases in which our fishermen have had to stop fishing and lose several days of activity to help the hundreds of migrants that crowd aboard the cayucos [balsas de madera], often adrift at sea in a situation of danger to the lives of these people “.
“There are no excuses for not knowing that the numbers are increasing”
Madrid has promised to expand naval patrols around the islands and its ministers have spoken with Morocco and Senegal about the possibility of preventing migrants from traveling in the first place.
“COVID-19 is destroying African economies, as it has also had a great impact on European economies,” We knew that one of the consequences of this pandemic was going to be an increase in migration, “said Arancha González Laya, the minister. of Foreign Affairs of Spain, earlier this month.
He rejected accusations of mismanagement and preparation by Spain in the treatment of migrant arrivals. These accusations rained down en masse when it turned out that thousands of migrants slept under tents on the Arguineguín pier for days, sometimes weeks, in unsanitary conditions.
“From UNHCR we insist on the importance of quickly identifying asylum seekers and, above all, what we demand is a treatment in accordance with the human rights of fundamental freedoms of all people, regardless of their immigration status,” said María Jesús Vega, chief of communications for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
“From there, and with things well done, we propose to refer asylum seekers who need protection, work with victims of human trafficking if there are any, refer unaccompanied minors to the authorities, and if there are people that they can return and that nothing happens to them, return flights must be organized, but with the assurance that they are not returning the refugees, with all the guarantees and respecting the principle of non-refoulement established by international law. “
Sunderland, for its part, said it expected more from Spain.
“These are difficult times, and I certainly want to acknowledge the incredible work of the people who go out to rescue them (the migrants) for what they are doing, but Spain is more than capable of organizing things better, of planning everything better. they were there, “he said.
“There are no excuses for not knowing that the numbers were increasing and for not doing solid contingency planning so that they can respond in a way that respects the dignity of people and their rights,” Sunderland added.