Tensions rising in Spain’s Canary Islands over irregular immigration

Protests are breaking out in locations housing migrant centers, and some residents are organizing themselves into vigilante groups

Protest in Gran Canaria against irregular immigration. Sign reads: “Corrupt Pedro Sánchez there are not enough beds for everyone.”
Las Palmas de Gran Canaria / Madrid -

For several days now, a school in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, in Spain’s Canary Islands, has been more reminiscent of a prison than a shelter for migrants. The people inside are free to come and go, but most of them are afraid to wander too far from the entrance.

“On Tuesday we went out to collect some money that my family had wired me. It was 3pm, and a car with four people inside stopped us in the middle of the street,” explains Monsiffe, a 24-year-old from Morocco. “They showed us several large knives, and fired in the air with BB guns. We were forced to run away.”

Last week, between Monday and Thursday, seven Moroccan migrants living at this school in the neighborhood of El Lasso were assaulted. The attacks were carried out by organized groups of local residents, according to Cruz Blanca, the religious non-profit that runs the shelter.

Anyone who violates the law and commits crimes should be arrested and tried, but it is shameful to see immigrants being beaten up in Europe in the 21st century
Yassin, migrant living at El Lasso center

“We’re all really scared. I feel like I’m in prison,” says Yassin, another migrant who lives at the school. “Anyone who violates the law and commits crimes should be arrested and tried, but it is shameful to see migrants being beaten up in Europe in the 21st century.”

On Monday, the prosecutor’s office in Las Palmas announced an investigation into potential hate crimes by members of WhatsApp chat groups that tried to get organized to intimidate or assault immigrants. Prosecutors are focusing on several messages exchanged two weeks ago calling on group members to travel to the south of Gran Canaria in order to attack migrants staying at tourist accommodation that’s been temporarily converted into facilities for migrants, the news agency Efe reported.

Spain has once again become the main gateway into Europe for irregular migrants, largely because of the reactivation of the route to the Canary Islands. Last year there were around 41,000 arrivals by land and sea in Spain, compared with 34,100 in Italy and 15,500 in Greece, according to figures released on December 28 by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

The Canary Islands, which are located off the northwestern coast of North Africa, received more than 20,000 migrants last year. The surge pushed the region’s shelters to the breaking point and highlighted authorities’ inability to provide adequate facilities or assistance. The crisis was most visible 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 in late November.

A new migrant camp in the neighborhood of El Lasso.
A new migrant camp in the neighborhood of El Lasso.Javier Bauluz

Now, with new migrant centers opening up in other parts of the archipelago, protests are erupting there as well. On Saturday, there were demonstrations in La Isleta and El Lasso, two neighborhoods in Las Palmas that are home to these facilities.

Tensions are running high on the island of Gran Canaria, where Spain’s central government is keeping nearly 7,000 migrants. In the space of a few weeks, what began as racist rhetoric has morphed into verbal threats and assaults by local residents who are feeling scared and convinced that they need to protect their wives, children and property from an “invasion.” In several parts of the island, armed citizens are now taking justice into their own hands.

Rising tensions

Experts, civil society groups and the police are convinced that the tension will only intensify. The boats are still arriving, migrants are still being retained on the islands rather than flown over to the mainland, and while migrants living in hotels have been transferred to camps, there are thousands of people concentrated in just three municipalities on the islands of Gran Canaria, Tenerife and Fuerteventura.

“There’s been a lack of joint work between the central government and local authorities,” notes Vicente Zapata, who teaches human geography at La Laguna University. “You have to be very prudent and avoid stigmatizing neighborhoods or the society that’s sheltering [the migrants]. The focus must be on the origin of the problem: the Spanish state’s erroneous immigration policy in the Canaries.”

This expert says that “the current model, which concentrates thousands of people in one area, does not work.”

EU funds

Spain is now asking the European Union to allocate more funds to countries in North Africa, Western Africa and the Sahel area. The more than 20,000 boat landings in the Canaries in 2020 illustrate “the constant pressure on the Spanish borders of the EU,” reads a letter from the Foreign Ministry to the European Commission.

Three ministries – Foreign Affairs, Interior and Migrations – have drafted an eight-page proposal for significant EU funding for the territories that migrants originate from. Two documents that EL PAÍS has had access to also request renewed efforts in security, economic diplomacy and high-level bilateral relations.

Spain already has close relations with Mauritania, Senegal and Gambia, including supplying millions of euros in aid to train and equip those countries’ security forces. And then there is Morocco, which received €32 million in direct aid to stop the flow of migrants crossing the Strait of Gibraltar.

Migration to Spain has experienced a succession of peaks. Sea arrivals surged in 2018 to reach 57,500 people, making Spain the main irregular entry point into Europe. After persuading Morocco to crack down on departures, arrivals were halved in 2019. But in 2020, the Atlantic route to the Canaries was reactivated after a long lull.

Vigilante groups

A local resident of Las Rehoyas shows the knife wound he sustained.
A local resident of Las Rehoyas shows the knife wound he sustained. Javier Bauluz

Standing in a cloud of hashish smoke, four local youths are whiling away the time at a street corner in Zárate, a public housing area located near El Lasso school. They say that a Moroccan man sexually assaulted a local woman, and warn that Moroccans are not welcome in their territory. Not long ago, a young North African was brutally beaten here and the moment was captured on video. “We don’t know whether he did something or not. But he had the misfortune of getting lost,” says one of the youths mockingly. “The moros [a pejorative word for North Africans] are going to have a hard time. If one of them shows up around here, he’s either going to wake up in an intensive care unit or inside a box.”

Police officials say that crimes committed by foreigners, as well as the assaults that they are victims of, are “few and far between.” But police patrols in four neighborhoods have been stepped up. Two of them are home to migrant camps, and all four are classified as “vulnerable” due to worse-than-average unemployment figures, educational attainment and access to housing.

At 9pm on Wednesday, there was an unauthorized anti-immigrant protest in the neighborhood of Las Rehoyas, where around 100 people defied the coronavirus curfew to sing out “there aren’t enough beds for so many people.” The mood was festive, but there have been times when things have turned bloody.

On a recent Friday, a Moroccan man stabbed a local resident with a knife, causing a wound that required five stitches. A manhunt was quickly organized to catch the attacker, or anyone who looked like him. The 31-year-old local who was stabbed, Jeremy (an assumed name), lifts his sweatshirt to reveal the scar on his chest. “He nearly killed me and orphaned my two children,” he says.

A Moroccan man attacked by a vigilante group.
A Moroccan man attacked by a vigilante group.Javier Bauluz

According to Jeremy, around three weeks ago several migrants showed up to steal clothes hanging on the line of people’s homes. Later, he says, they began stealing children’s scooters, and started to scare the young women in the neighborhood. Other residents agree that they live in fear. Some offer more or less factual information to make their point, while others fall back on hoaxes, such as the one claiming that the king of Morocco is dressing up his soldiers as illegal migrants. “If they’re coming here on the warpath, we’re going to defend ourselves,” says Jeremy.

Two kilometers from this spot, one of the targets of these local vigilante groups shows his swollen face. One of his eyes is shut from the swelling. He has been sleeping out on the street for six months, practically since his arrival on a boat. He didn’t go to the doctor because he doesn’t have any legal papers, and he’s afraid of the police. “They were attacked with tasers and battery liquid. They came with knives this size,” says a local friend, indicating the length of his forearm.

English version by Susana Urra.

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