Spain probing report of sexual assault and prostitution at migrant minor shelter

An anonymous complaint described reiterated misconduct at facilities on the island of Gran Canaria, where regional authorities are struggling to provide adequate care following a surge in arrivals

Migrants at a hotel in Puerto Rico, in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, in Spain's Canary Islands, last October.
Migrants at a hotel in Puerto Rico, in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, in Spain's Canary Islands, last October.Alvaro Garcia

Cases of sexual assault and prostitution have been reported at a shelter for unaccompanied migrant minors on the island of Gran Canaria, in Spain’s Canary Islands, according to an anonymous complaint filed by individuals claiming to be workers there.

The complaint was sent in an e-mail to local authorities in the municipality of Mogán, in the south of the island, and it described “reiterated sexual assault” perpetrated by adult individuals within the premises. It also said that some of the minors under regional guardianship are engaging in prostitution “both inside and outside” the facilities.

The message also detailed “physical assault and sustained abuse” allegedly committed by workers at the center, as well as deficient sanitary conditions. According to the complaint, these episodes of “negligence” have been “condoned and encouraged” by members of current and past management teams, who “have done nothing to stop it.”

The issue of providing care for unaccompanied minors has become a source of friction between Spain’s central government and regional authorities in the Canary Islands, located off the western coast of Africa. A new surge in migrant arrivals beginning in 2019 has forced the Spanish government to quickly open over 20 shelters run by private organizations. Santana has said on several occasions that the Canary Islands are “overwhelmed” by the challenge of providing adequate care for the new arrivals. In December, Madrid released €10 million in aid to cover part of the costs, which the Canary Islands government has estimated at €18 million.

This is not the only region of Spain struggling with a sudden surge in migrant minors. In late May, around 9,000 people crossed from Morocco into the Spanish exclave city of Ceuta in the space of two days, including up to 3,000 minors, in a move that created a major diplomatic crisis between Madrid and Rabat.

State of one of the rooms at the shelter in Porto Bello, in an image provided by staff.
State of one of the rooms at the shelter in Porto Bello, in an image provided by staff.

The minor shelter is located inside the Porto Bello apartment complex, in the tourist town of Puerto Rico. The facilities are run by a foundation named Respuesta Social Siglo XXI, while guardianship of its residents – as well as the rest of the approximately 2,700 unaccompanied minors living on the islands – falls to the regional government of the Canaries.

Noemí Santana, head of the regional department of social rights, equality and youth affairs, said on Tuesday that an anonymous e-mail was received on May 31, leading to an internal investigation in partnership with the foundation and the regional police, due to “the gravity of the allegations.”

The head prosecutor in Las Palmas province, Beatriz Sánchez, has told EL PAÍS that the shelter in question has been under scrutiny since February, following reports of an incident there. According to the anonymous complaint, several rooms inside the complex sustained considerable material damage after some of the residents “mutinied.” It was weeks before things went back to normal, and the minors have been kept “in subpar living conditions during all these months.”

Sources at the Civil Guard law enforcement agency said they were checking the accuracy of the allegations, and that so far no worker has filed a formal police complaint. The regional social rights chief, Santana, said that her department has been insisting “for many months” that the use of tourist apartment complexes to house unaccompanied minors “is not ideal,” and that shutting them down “is a priority.” According to her department’s figures, the Porto Bello facilities are holding 121 people, compared with 170 at the beginning of 2021. On Tuesday, 43 minors were set to be transferred to other shelters.

The anonymous complaint holds that a worker told the education team in early March that several minors had reported “reiterated sexual assault by two of the users of the center.” These two “users” were described as adults, yet they were living on the premises. One of the victimized minors fled the shelter and his whereabouts are unclear. His roommates said he left “to avoid the assault and the bullying he was suffering at the hands of some minors who made fun of his situation.”

After conducting its own investigation, the education team asked members of management for reinforced night shifts in order to prevent these kinds of situations and urged them to file a formal police complaint. Despite receiving assurances that this would be done, “the reality is that, to this day, no complaint has been filed, there’s been no reinforcement of the night shifts, the [assaulted] minor has not returned and nothing has been done to help him even though management has information about his whereabouts.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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