‘The Canary Islands can no longer cope with the flow of...

‘The Canary Islands can no longer cope with the flow of...
‘The Canary Islands can no longer cope with the flow of...

The number of boat refugees stranded in the Canary Islands has increased spectacularly this year. The corona crisis is part of the explanation, and it also makes reception on the islands a lot more difficult. “The migrants sleep on the asphalt, with only a blanket.”

“Stay behind the gates!” The National Police officer shouts out to a handful of reporters at the port of Arguineguín, on the south coast of Gran Canaria.

His warning is not really necessary. Most journalists are from the local press. They know what it is like here. Since the controversial muzzle law came into effect, it is best not to argue with a Spanish cop or ignore a police gate. And so they stay neatly behind the crowd barrier, far from the quay where the boat refugees picked up from the ocean are brought ashore. ‘At this distance it is impossible to turn the drowning people into people’, photojournalist Javier Bauluz complains. “It doesn’t seem like anything more than sagging legs.”

The Canarian Immigration Route is back. Actually, the perilous route across the Atlantic Ocean has never been completely gone. Since the first patera – a fishing boat – reached the Spanish archipelago from the coast of southern Morocco in 1994, the flow of refugees has never disappeared.

A resumption of refugee transfers to the mainland is urgently needed.

Juan Carlos Lorenzo

Spanish organization for refugee assistance CEAR

Initially there were no more than a few dozen per year, almost exclusively Moroccans. In 1997 the limit of 100 was passed, two years later it was more than 2,000 and in 2006 the Canary Islands became world news when 32,000 boat refugees washed up on the beaches of well-known holiday resorts such as Tenerife and Gran Canaria.

It was no longer just Moroccans who had made a trip of 100 kilometers across the ocean. An increasing proportion of the refugees came from countries south of the Sahara, such as Senegal, Gambia, Mali, Ivory Coast and Guinea. They set out in crammed fishing canoes from the port of Nouadhibou in Mauritania, 800 kilometers from the Canary Islands. Others made an even longer journey and boarded in Senegal and Gambia.

Spain and the European Union hastily set in motion a plan to block off the Canarian migration route. This was done according to the now well-known recipe: joint patrols by the European border guard Frontex with the local coast guard around the main departure ports in southern Morocco, Western Sahara and Mauritania, and financial injections to stimulate the government of those countries to take crackdown on boat refugees. .


According to official figures, more than 8,000 boat migrants will have arrived in the Canary Islands by 2020. That is seven times as many as in the same period last year.

Peak year

It worked for a while. For years, the number of migrants entering the Canary Islands was limited to a few hundred per year. But from September 2019 their numbers started to increase spectacularly. So far this year, according to official figures, more than 8,000 boat people have arrived in the Canary Islands. That is seven times as many as in the same period last year. And the daily rhythm of newcomers has even exceeded that of the peak year 2006 in recent weeks.

Aday González (33) is in charge of the first reception by the Red Cross in the port of Arguineguín. This is the place where most of the boat people picked up from the sea are brought ashore by the Canary rescue teams. González is exhausted. “Today we received 15 pateras,” he says. In all, 400 to 500 migrants, he does not know the exact number yet. “In any case, it is a record”, González assures. It is 10 pm and one of the Red Cross employees has passed away. It lies on the ground and is looked after by some colleagues.

At a great distance, invisible to the eyes of the cameras, the boat people are taken from the rescue ship Menkalinan. Exhaustion and dehydration are common after a sea voyage of at least 100 kilometers. And no one knows how many fishing boats perish in the ocean without ever being noticed. According to an estimate by the Spanish refugee aid organization CEAR, 1 in 20 boat refugees die during the crossing.

The newcomers will stay on the quay of Arguineguín for the first two days, says González. Behind gates and guarded by the national police. The Red Cross has set up an improvised camp there. It consists of twelve tents, with room for 25 people. The migrants sleep on the asphalt, with only a blanket. Not even a mattress pad? “No,” says González. “This is an emergency camp and this is all we have.” The camp has been in use since the beginning of the summer.

The corona epidemic makes the reception of the refugees a lot more complicated, says González. ‘They have to stay here in the harbor until the results of their corona test are known. Anyone infected will be quarantined elsewhere on the island. Anyone who is not infected goes to one of the reception centers. ‘

But the reception centers, most in the capital Las Palmas, are overcrowded. That too has a lot to do with the corona crisis. Since the outbreak of the epidemic, hardly any migrants have been transferred to the Spanish mainland. In addition, migrants cannot be deported because many countries have closed their borders due to the sanitary crisis. Agreements on the return of migrants have been suspended. As a result, some migrants have to stay in the port of Arguineguín for a week or more. Closed borders and travel restrictions in Africa are also a major cause for the enormous increase in the number of boat people on the Canary route, according to aid workers.


Meanwhile, the far-right party Vox is trying to capitalize on the emergency. False rumors about infected migrants sparked riots in the town of Tunte a few weeks ago. Excited local residents erected barricades at a temporary shelter to prevent the arrival of the migrants. The 28 migrants involved all had a negative corona test.

“We are in a permanent state of overload.” says Juan Carlos Lorenzo of CEAR in his office in Las Palmas. His organization manages several reception centers in Gran Canaria. ‘We can no longer handle the flow. A resumption of refugee transfers to the mainland is urgently needed. ‘

According to Lorenzo, the end of the transfers has nothing to do with the corona crisis. “The Interior Ministry stopped flights in mid-February,” he says. ‘At that time we had no idea what the epidemic would mean. The ministry had a different argument. If you brought migrants from here to the mainland, it would have a luring effect. We saw that. The transfers have been stopped, but the number of boat refugees has only grown. ‘ Lorenzo believes that a different migration policy is urgently needed. “You can’t turn an island like Gran Canaria into one big prison.”

Saikou Kanouté (19) made the crossing from Morocco to Gran Canaria two months ago. He is from The Gambia, but his English is poor because he never went to school. His father died when he was “five or six,” and from then on he had to help his mother get water, make fire, and simply survive. His mother died while in Morocco, on his way to Europe. Together with hundreds of other Africans, he is now in a shelter in Las Palmas. He wants to go to Barcelona. But most of all he wants to go to school. To survive, he wants to learn English and Spanish, learn to read and write. This is not possible without papers. And he can’t leave the island. ‘My life is too pain’, he says softly with his heavy bass voice.

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