Spain’s Canary Islands struggling to cope with rise in migrant arrivals

Local NGOs say they are completely overwhelmed as the number of people arriving by boat increases sixfold compared to last year

Health workers attend to a group of migrants who arrived in the port of Arguineguín in Gran Canaria last April.
Health workers attend to a group of migrants who arrived in the port of Arguineguín in Gran Canaria last April.Ángel Medina G. (EFE)

“The situation is worrying, very worrying,” explains Juan Carlos Lorenzo, the coordinator of the Spanish Commission for Refugees (CEAR) in the Canary Islands. “We’re overwhelmed,” adds Ángel Manuel Hernández Gutiérrez, known as Pastor Ángel, an evangelical minister who runs the Modern Christian Mission NGO, which is dealing with 269 migrants. “We are in a huge battle with the Inclusion, Social Security and Migration Ministry,” he complains. “All we are asking them for is food for so many people, because right now we are living from begging businessmen, friends, hotels and the local government. But we haven’t got anywhere.”

The migration route to Spain’s Canary Islands, an archipelago located off the coast of northwestern Africa, was reactivated toward the end of last year. Around 2,698 would-be migrants arrived, but that was double the figure for 2018, and meant the reopening of a path that was closed around a decade ago.

All we are asking them for is food for so many people
Ángel Manuel Hernández Gutiérrez, Modern Christian Mission NGO

During the first six months of this year, arrivals compared to 2019 have increased sixfold. Attempts to reach Spain via the southern coast, meanwhile, are falling. The islands of Gran Canaria and Fuerteventura are under the most pressure right now.

Despite having been through this before, when in 2006 the islands suffered what was dubbed the “crisis of the cayucos,” in reference to the rickety boats used by the would-be migrants, there are not sufficient resources to deal with the arrivals on the Canary Islands. What does exist is insufficient, and local councils, priests, volunteers and NGOs have to improvise, using sports facilities, school residences, youth hostels and even industrial warehouses to house the migrants.

What’s more, the islands have turned into a bottleneck: migrants arrive, but they don’t leave. The Interior Ministry has put a halt to anyone being moved to the peninsula, ever since the coronavirus crisis began and the state of alarm was implemented by the Spanish government back in mid-March.

Chris Kelen, a 23-year-old from Cameroon, arrived in Fuerteventura on June 6, after a “terrible” journey that lasted eight hours from the Atlantic coast of Morocco. He is living in the 3,000-square-meter installation run by Pastor Ángel. “I have a good life here,” he explains in English. “People are nice, I get food…” He is grateful, but his plan – like that of the majority of those who take the same journey – is to continue on to the European continent. “I’d like to carry on playing soccer,” he explains. “I’d like to continue on to Germany.”

“We don’t think that the administration is properly managing the situation,” says María Greco, from the Entre Mares association, which is dedicated to helping migrants. “There have been no meetings nor fluidity in the communication between the Spanish government and the local authorities. What’s more, they haven’t counted on those of us who are working on the ground. They can’t claim that this situation has taken them by surprise.” Greco also complains about the lack of resources in the system. “In December they closed the legal service, meaning that these people are not receiving the legal advice that they should under the Foreigners Act.”

The Canary Islands have turned into a bottleneck: migrants arrive, but they don’t leave

Juan Carlos Lorenzo, from the CEAR, warns that the responses to the situation are not sufficient, and fears that things are going to get worse. The central government’s delegation in the Canary Islands and the Inclusion, Social Security and Migrations Ministry would only state to EL PAÍS that “all of the immigrants have had physical resources and emergency humanitarian help.” What’s more, they say that the “state is working intensely to find the best solutions and the strategy must be established in the heart of the European Union.”

“We are always seeking new resources to adapt to the migratory situation in the Canary Islands,” sources from the government state. “We are awaiting new contributions for the islands, but we cannot announce anything until it is definite.”

The EU’s migration plan will be on the agenda over the coming months, but the negotiations are not pointing to a good deal for Spain. While the member states from the north want to strengthen controls at entry points to European territory, and leave the responsibilities for reception and expulsion to the countries on these borders, Spain is pushing for a plan that would oblige its fellow members to commit to quotas for taking in migrants rescued at sea.

English version by Simon Hunter.


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