“Why do they treat us immigrants like animals in Europe?”

Migrants taken away in garbage truck after landing in Canaries recount their experiences

Illegal immigrants inside a holding center.
Illegal immigrants inside a holding center.

Sitting inside the immigrant holding center (CIE) in Barranco Seco on Gran Canaria, the African migrants held for five hours on the beach where they landed last week out of fear they might have been infected with Ebola now recount their experiences.

“It looked like they were scared of us,” says one of the 21 undocumented immigrants. “Why do they treat us like animals in Europe?”

After doctors ascertained they were not carrying Ebola – even though six of them were running a high fever – they were taken to the nearest police station in the back of a truck used to collect trash from Maspalomas beach.

The image attracted criticism of San Bartolomé de Tirajana Mayor Marco Aurelio Pérez, who defended himself by saying that it was the only four-wheel-drive vehicle available with enough space to transport so many people.

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Since then, local, regional and national authorities have been bickering over whose responsibility it was to deal with the situation, and what to do about future arrivals.

Vicky, another member of the group that landed at Maspalomas, is from Ivory Coast, where she obtained a degree in higher education. Speaking in French, she explains that she had enough to eat back home, but fled “the political situation, which is not good, there is a lot of tension.” The conflict between supporters of President Alaska Ouattara and his predecessor Laurent Gbagbo created a million refugees who reached the border with Liberia, a country that has been hit hard by the Ebola epidemic.

Vicky says the disease had not yet arrived when she was there, and that she has since spent two years in Morocco before securing a seat on a boat to Spain. She cannot believe she is going to be sent back.

“They say they are going to deport us, but other Africans who came here never told me about this jail,” she says.

Marie is from Nigeria. Her husband reached the Iberian peninsula before she did, but she lost his phone number during her journey and cannot get in contact to tell him she is alive.

Police sources say the immigrant holding center at Barranco Seco has a relatively low deportation rate of 26.4 percent of arrivals, who can be held a maximum 60 days. Not all 21 migrants who arrived on November 5 are here at the center. One, a minor, is in a special foster center and another is in hospital after sustaining a deep cut from the boat propeller when he tried to jump out.

All of them keep asking: “Is it true we are going to be deported?”

That question remains unanswered, as do others, such as who is to blame for the lack of coordination, or absence of clear protocols, in dealing with immigrants who arrive with suspected Ebola symptoms.

The alert was first raised around 9.30am on November 5, when the Canary Islands regional health department learned about the arrival of the boat. Two medical teams were successively told to go down to the beach, only for the order to be canceled. The first ambulance stopped before it arrived because some immigrants admitted to being from Guinea, one of the countries affected by Ebola.

Regional health authorities decided to activate the Ebola alert and prepared a second vehicle with protective suits. But then an immigrant who spoke a little Spanish said they had all spent over a year in Morocco before coming to Spain.

The regional department phoned the government delegation in the Canary Islands to ask what to do. The police sent two translators to the beach. Five hours elapsed while the various parties, plus the Red Cross, improvised solutions. The non-profit organization brought the migrants food, water and masks. The local police created a cordon to keep the public away.

“Nobody knew how large the safety perimeter had to be,” recalls one local police officer. “There is no protocol for these cases, so we just used common sense.”

Some of his colleagues are angry that they were exposed to a potentially risky situation. “What if one day someone arrives with Ebola. Then what? We all get infected?”