Tension spreads through migrant shelters in Spain’s Canary Islands
Fears of deportation and poor conditions at new camps have led to hunger strikes, protests and self-harm
The situation in migrant shelters in Spain’s Canary Islands has gone from bad to worse. The surge in undocumented immigration to the region, which is located off the northwestern coast of Africa, has put the archipelago under enormous strain. Lacking proper facilities to house the arrivals, authorities have been forced to improvise temporary solutions, placing migrants in ports, hotels and schools.
Now migrants are being moved to large camps – a step that has sparked fears of deportation and heightened frustration. All transfers to the Spanish peninsula have been suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic, meaning migrants are stuck on the Canary Islands. The desperation over this situation led to several protests last week, as well as calls for hunger strikes, acts of self-harm and even suicide attempts. In at least two migrant shelters and one hotel in Gran Canaria, migrants waved signs with messages such as “Death or Europe” and “The Canaries are a prison for migrants.”
A prisoner at least knows how long their sentence will last, but I don’t know when I will leave the Canary Islands, and meanwhile my children are waiting for me to send moneyAziz Bouabid, migrant in Gran Canaria
The progressive opening of large camps, which are set to shelter around 9,000 migrants on the archipelago, has angered the migrant community, who see them as a waiting room for deportation. The poor conditions at the camps have not helped matters. Last Friday, a group of 80 migrants, most from Morocco and some from Mauritania, were sent to a new camp called Las Raíces in the island of Tenerife. But when they arrived, it was 8ºC, pouring down with rain, and water and mud were getting inside the tents. The group refused to get off the bus at first, but gave up when the police arrived. The migrants were then forced to take refuge in bunk beds under blankets, as one of the residents showed EL PAÍS in a video call. The videos of the conditions of the camp, which has capacity for 2,400 people, have since been sent to migrants across the archipelago. Nobody wants to go there.
“The center in Tenerife is a freezer. And it’s a way of holding us all together in order to deport us to Morocco. We don’t want to go back. Ever,” said Abd Latif, a 24-year-old from Morocco, at a protest last Saturday outside a hotel in the south of Gran Canaria, where they are currently staying. “I studied law in Morocco, then I earned two diplomas, but there is no work there. I invested €4,000 to come here. I can’t go back, do you understand?” Latif and around 30 of his compatriots called the protest after learning they would be the next group to be transferred to Las Raíces in Tenerife. “We want to continue our journey. People are going crazy here. People who didn’t drink, who didn’t do anything, are now going crazy.”
The news has taken a heavy toll on the migrants, driving some to self-harm. One young man from Morocco cut his leg 27 times with a razor after learning his mother needed a liver operation. “She cried a lot and so did I. I came here for the good of my family, but who is going to cover the costs of the operation now if I continue to be cooped up here?” he asked. “I suffered a lot from poverty, I suffered for my family, and to get here. I don’t want to go to Tenerife. I don’t want to return to Morocco.” Next to him, another Moroccan man shows the cuts he has made on his arm, and on his cellphone, he has a photo of another compatriot who slit his stomach. A worker at the hotel says that another man had to be stopped from jumping off a balcony.
Spain’s Interior Ministry has maintained its plan to only transfer a few of the most vulnerable migrants and asylum seekers to the mainland – 2,168 people during all of 2020. Its goal is to increase deportations, but the process continues to be slow. There are 80 deportations to Morocco a week, a flight is set to fly this month to Senegal and there are plans to begin deporting migrants to Mauritania again. But with transfers to the mainland suspended and deportations at a trickle, migrant numbers are continuing to rise in the Canary Islands. Last year there were around 41,000 arrivals by land and sea in Spain, of which more than 20,000 were received by the archipelago.
The center in Tenerife is a freezer. And it’s a way of holding us all together in order to deport us to Morocco. We don’t want to go backAbd Latif, 24-year-old from Morocco
The shelters in the archipelago have an open-door policy, meaning migrants are free to enter and leave at will. But in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, one school sheltering migrants has turned more into a prison, with many fearing attacks from locals if they go outside. This center in León school is one of two in the city that has sparked fierce opposition from residents in the area. Police have been patrolling the center for more than a week after migrants complained that locals had threatened them with guns and large knives. Cruz Blanca, the religious non-profit that runs the shelter, says that the migrants have been threatened and attacked by organized groups. Residents, meanwhile, say they are fed up with seeing the migrants wandering about the streets and getting into squabbles at night, which they record on their cellphones.
On Saturday, around 450 Moroccans at the León school also decided they had had enough and announced a 24-hour hunger strike. Throughout the day, the migrants waved signs with messages such as “Death is better than deportation.” The group called on the Moroccan consulate to speed up the processing of their documents, to be allowed to go to the mainland and for protection against violence. “We suffer a lot of psychological pressure here,” said Aziz Bouabid, 46. “A prisoner at least knows how long their sentence will last, but I don’t know when I will leave the Canary Islands, and meanwhile my children are waiting for me to send money.”
The protest followed an earlier hunger strike last Tuesday by migrants at a military compound in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. In this case, the migrants at the facility, which does not have enough hot water for everyone, asked to be transferred to the mainland. A few days later, the compound was flooded by the rain due to a plumbing problem.
English version by Melissa Kitson.