Spanish government to open new shelters in Canary Islands amid surge in migrant arrivals

More than 4,000 people have arrived in the archipelago since the beginning of the year, a sevenfold rise on the same period in 2019

A group of 54 migrants rescued on Tuesday near Gran Canaria.
A group of 54 migrants rescued on Tuesday near Gran Canaria.quique curbelo (EFE)
Guillermo Vega

The Spanish government will open its own migrant centers in the Canary Islands to address a surge of arrivals to the archipelago, according to sources from the secretary of state for migration. The Canary Islands regional government and NGO groups have been demanding the government open its own facilities for years. This demand has taken on greater urgency in recent times due to the spike in arrivals and the difficulties posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

The accommodation conditions are worse than at refugee camps in countries like South Sudan, Angola and Iraq
Abián Montesdeoca, pediatrician

Increased border controls in northern Morocco have been pushing the migration routes to the Atlantic side, where the nearest of the Canary Islands lies around 95 kilometers west of the Moroccan coast. As a result of the rising number of arrivals, the government delegation in the region has been forced to improvise accommodation options for migrants. These have broadly failed to meet basic standards, with migrants staying overnight at docks, in industrial warehouses, in Canarian wrestling facilities and in tourist complexes during the last few weeks. For months, both regional and local authorities have been using their own facilities to accommodate the migrant arrivals.

But it will still be months before the new centers open. “Due to the processing times required, temporary resources will be sent to allow hundreds of people to be homed in dignified conditions,” said the same sources, who defended the work of the secretary of state for migration. “In October 2019, the Canary Islands had fewer than 100 spots at shelters, now there are 2,000, 600 of which we have created in the last two weeks,” they said.

The central government has been looking at possible sites for the new migrant centers for months. One option under consideration is to use abandoned Defense Ministry facilities, an idea backed on Monday by Ángel Víctor Torres, the leader of the Canary Island regional government.


More than 4,000 migrants have arrived in the Canary Islands since the beginning of the year. This figure is seven times higher with respect to the same period in 2019. On Tuesday alone, 160 people on six different boats reached the shores of Gran Canaria and Tenerife. The last of these boats, located five miles south off the coast of Tenerife, was carrying a body, according to sources from Spain’s Maritime Rescue services. The arrivals on Tuesday come after more than 200 people reached the archipelago last week on 11 different boats.

Improvised migrant shelter in Gran Canaria.
Improvised migrant shelter in Gran Canaria.

The rising number of arrivals, together with the suspension of transfers to the Spanish peninsula, has pushed migrant centers to the breaking point. The situation, which is especially dire in Gran Canaria, has led migrants to be housed in “deplorable” and “inhuman” conditions, according to Abián Montesdeoca, a pediatrician with the regional healthcare service. Since March, Montesdeoca has been leading a special team treating disease and following the health of migrant children. “We are worse than ever,” he says, explaining that the facilities are not cleaned, often lack showers and bathrooms, have poor ventilation, where social distancing measures are nonexistent and there is no space to treat patients or for medical consultations. In some cases, there are trash containers within the warehouse, and adults and children are forced to sleep on the floor.

“The accommodation conditions are worse than at refugee camps in countries like South Sudan, Angola and Iraq, as one of our colleagues has confirmed,” he says. Montesdeoca adds that in these conditions it is impossible to maintain any kind of coronavirus prevention measure, and those who contract the disease are not placed in quarantine but remain in the overcrowded facilities.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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