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How the Canary Islands became Europe's latest migrant hotbed

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Malian migrants gesture as they wait to be transferred to their accommodation after arriving by boat on the Canary Island of Gran Canaria on November 23, 2020
Malian migrants gesture as they wait to be transferred to their accommodation after arriving by boat on the Canary Island of Gran Canaria on November 23, 2020   -   Copyright  DESIREE MARTIN/AFP or licensors
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Spain's Canary Islands sit around 1,200 kilometres from mainland Europe.

But migrants are increasingly risking perilous journeys from western Africa to reach the archipelago, in normal times a tourism honeypot.

More migrants arrived in the first two weeks of November - 5,275 - than in the last four years combined, according to data from the Spanish government. The islands have taken in 16,950 migrants this year, the highest number since 2006.

More than 250 people are known to have died or gone missing trying to reach the islands so far this year, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Experts say there are several factors driving the influx of arrivals, notably restrictions on other routes to Europe via Morocco and Libya.

Others suggest the economic hit of coronavirus, conflict and improved sailing conditions are helping push up the numbers.

Canary Islands: just a staging post for migrants?

"Spain is working closely with Morocco and has really tried to close its borders, trying to prevent arrivals on its own territory [within Morocco] called Ceuta and Melilla, and preventing any kind of migration by boat through the Strait of Gibraltar by sea from the Moroccan coast to the Spanish peninsula, so many of the people who might otherwise have gone that route have now turned around to try the Canary Islands route," said Judith Sunderland, acting deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division.

Credit: Euronews
The Canary Islands are around 1,200 kilometres from mainland Europe.Credit: Euronews

"This also goes back to an axiom in migration flows, which is that if you close one route, another route will open up, because people will try to move no matter what.

"And the smugglers who are paid to help people who want to move are business people and will look for different routes and open them up."

The presence of migrants on the archipelago is causing issues with locals who are trying to recover from a tourism season devastated by coronavirus.

One bar owner, Miguel Gonzalez, told AFP news agency that one of his customers was going to file a complaint with his travel agent, claiming they had not mentioned the presence of migrants on the island's beaches.

For many, however, the archipelago will serve as a staging post to reach mainland Spain or other parts of Europe, Sunderland added.

"I think right now there isn't a system in place in the Canary Islands to receive people and accommodate them and ensure that, for example, their asylum applications are processed in an efficient way," she told Euronews.

'Pretty disastrous situation'

Migrants arriving into Gran Canaria are initially kept in the port of Arguineguin. Authorities set up a camp to accommodate 400. At the moment it houses around 2,000.

"What I saw when I was there more than a week ago was a pretty disastrous situation in this one town on the pier where the authorities have been setting up this makeshift reception centre since August where the police identify, process and register everyone, and where they also perform health exams and COVID-19 tests before people are then housed elsewhere," said Sunderland

"When I visited, I met three women who said they had been there since October 22, which at that time was more than two weeks ago.

"It was a bad idea from the beginning to set up that kind of reception and processing centre on a pier that, even with the best of intentions, could never really provide the kind of dignified material conditions that people deserve."

Elsewhere around 5,000 migrants are housed in hotels and other tourism accommodation left empty amid the coronavirus restrictions.

Alejandro Santana, manager of Labranda Hotels & Resorts, told Euronews that COVID lockdowns had meant hotels had been virtually empty for eight or nine months. With that in mind, hoteliers have decided to help the state try and manage the migrant influx.

"We have hotels that have been closed for eight or nine months, and we have beds available, and they are used to house these immigrants," said Santana. "Many hotel chains are doing this and business is being generated and jobs are being created.

But, he added, the presence of migrants is making the few holidaymakers that are on the islands uncomfortable.

"The tourists are not used to all this, sometimes there are 10 or 15 people on the street who maybe ask the tourists for money, maybe they make them uncomfortable, or make them feel insecure,". added Santana.

Away from tourism, locals on the islands, struggling amid the COVID restrictions, have also been protesting about the migrant influx.

It's even affected local fishermen, according to Javier Garat, secretary-general of the Spanish Federation of Fisheries.

He said: "There have already been many cases in which our fishermen have had to stop fishing and lose several days of activity to help the hundreds of people who are crowded on board the cayucos [wooden rafts], often adrift at sea in a situation of danger to the lives of these people."

'No excuse for not knowing numbers were increasing'

Madrid has vowed to expand naval patrols around the islands and its ministers have spoken to Morocco and Senegal about stopping migrants from travelling in the first place.

“COVID is destroying African economies, as it has also had a huge impact on European economies, we knew that one of the consequences of this pandemic was going to be an increase in migration,” Arancha González Laya, Spain's foreign minister, said earlier this month.

She rebuffed accusations of poor management and preparation by Spain in dealing with the migrant arrivals, resulting in thousands of them sleeping under tents on the dock of Arguineguin for days, sometimes weeks, in unsanitary conditions.

"From the UNHCR, we insist on the importance of quickly identifying asylum seekers and, above all, what we demand is treatment in line with the human rights of fundamental freedoms with all people, regardless of their immigration status," said María Jesús Vega, head of communications for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

"From there, and with things done well, we propose to refer asylum seekers who need protection, work with victims of trafficking if there are any, refer unaccompanied minors to the authorities, and if there are people who can return and that nothing happens to them return flights should be organised, but with the assurance that they are not returning refugees, with all the guarantees and respecting the principle of non-refoulement established by international law."

Sunderland, meanwhile, said she expected better from Spain.

"These are difficult times, and I would certainly like to acknowledge the incredible work of the people who are coming out to rescue them for what they are doing, but Spain is more than capable of organising this better, planning better. The signs were already there," she said.

"There is no excuse for not knowing that the numbers are increasing and for not doing solid contingency planning so that they can respond in a way that respects people's dignity and their rights," Sunderland added.

Every weekday at 1900 CET, Uncovering Europe brings you a European story that goes beyond the headlines. Download the Euronews app to get an alert for this and other breaking news. It's available on Apple and Android devices.