Tensions rise in Gran Canaria over surge in migrant arrivals

In the most hostile protest to date, around 30 residents in Arguineguín shouted insults outside one of the hotels being used as a shelter

Protesters outside a hotel in Arguineguín that is being used as a migrant shelter.
Protesters outside a hotel in Arguineguín that is being used as a migrant shelter.Asociación Vecinal de Arguineguín

Tensions over the rise in migrant arrivals in Gran Canaria in Spain’s Canary Islands sparked protests on Saturday, with around 30 residents demonstrating outside one of the hotels where the migrants are being sheltered.

The Canary Islands, which are located off the northwestern coast of North Africa, have seen a sharp rise in boat landings, with more than 21,000 migrants arriving this year alone. The surge has pushed the region’s shelters to breaking point and highlighted authorities’ inability to provide adequate facilities or assistance.

This crisis has been most keenly felt in Arguineguín, a village of 2,500 residents that is part of the tourist town of Mogán in Gran Canaria. The village’s port facility sheltered hundreds of migrants in overcrowded conditions for four months, until it was evacuated at the end of November.

Our protests have to be against the government, not the migrants
José Castro, 68-year-old local from Arguineguín

But the situation continues to be a source of tension among residents of Arguineguín. On Saturday around 30 people gathered outside a hotel in the village that is being used by the Red Cross as a migrant shelter. There was no physical aggression but in the videos of the demonstration, protesters can be heard saying “Moors get out” and calling the migrants “abusers.”

The incident began in the streets of Arguineguín when some of the locals began to harass a group of Moroccan men. The scene became increasingly heated, prompting the Civil Guard to send several patrols to protect the hotel. Local police stopped cars from approaching the establishment, while the Civil Guard protected the perimeter. The door to the hotel opened and closed quickly to let in the migrants who were still outside.

In response to the protest, the Red Cross, which is managing the shelters of recent boat arrivals, recommended that the nearly 6,000 migrants staying at 12 hotels in Gran Canaria remain indoors over the weekend. The Canary Islands regional government, which is responsible for sheltering underage migrants, made the same recommendation. “We can’t stop them from leaving, but we have asked that they stay in the hotels. We have explained the situation, but it is very tense, it could be risky for them,” said José Javier Sánchez, the deputy of social inclusion at the Red Cross. “We have recommended our team use the utmost prudence and keep a low profile. We have to protect them and under this level of tension, it is not good for anyone.”

The climate of hostility against the migrants poses yet another challenge in how to manage the surge in migrant arrivals. Compounding the coordination problems between authorities and the shortage of shelters is a rise of xenophobia that is being exploited by the far right in the region. For two weeks, the Red Cross has been the victim of an online campaign for their work in sheltering migrants, and for months Arguineguín has been the center of protests, fueled by the far-right Vox, against irregular immigration. Demonstrations in support of migrant rights have also been held in this period.

The latest protest on Saturday was the most hostile to date. It was sparked over a story that a group of migrant minors last Wednesday had beaten and robbed a young man from the island who had criticized them for “bothering” girls on a beach. This version of what happened spread like wildfire and neighborhood associations began to mobilize on social media to “confront the migrants” and “take the reins of the problem.”

What’s behind all this is built-up tension among locals who have been suffering the government’s lack of coordination since August
Onalia Bueno, mayor of Mogán

The guardian of the minors, however, has a different version of the story. His brother, Khalihanna Largat, says that the man who said he had been attacked was drinking on the street and mocking and insulting the young migrants. According to Largat, his brother, who holds Spanish citizenship and is of Moroccan origin, responded to the insults and ended up tackling the man to the ground when he saw that he wanted to hurt one of the minors. This led to a fight involving all of the young migrants. The only person to be arrested so far is the guardian of the migrants for alleged assault. The Civil Guard, however, is investigating an earlier assault made against the monitor.

The most recent protest has divided locals in Arguineguín. At a bar in the village on Saturday night, a 27-year-old resident, who did not wish to give his name, was discussing the incident with José Castro, a 68-year-old retired fisherman. The 27-year-old did not take part in the protest but he is friends with those who did. He did not approve of what they did, but he understands them. When he talks about the subject, he speaks in the first-person plural. “We don’t use violence. We have protested to ask the government to get rid of this issue. We feel abandoned,” he said. “Here we are used to leaving our homes and cars unlocked. Now, our women and children can no longer walk out by themselves. I have never been robbed in 27 years and in the last two weeks, I have been robbed twice. I don’t know who it was but it is a big coincidence.”

Castro was more critical of the protesters. “I think it’s bad. It was harassment. If you don’t have papers, you can’t illegally enter any country,” he said. “But you also can’t throw out anyone from the village. Least of all us. Our protests have to be against the government, not the migrants.”

The mayor of Mogán, Onalia Bueno, from the Ciudadanos por el Cambio party (Citizens for Change), also criticized the protest on Saturday and called for citizens to “act responsibly and remain calm.” Bueno, who recently threatened to sanction hotels that continue to shelter migrants after December 31, denied that the village has seen a spike in violence. “There is not more crime, what there is, is greater concern about insecurity. But that does not mean that it is real. There have been small incidents, but it is a big step to go from that to crime,” she told EL PAÍS. “What’s behind all this is built-up tension among locals who have been suffering the government’s lack of coordination since August.”

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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