Local priest: The Canary Islands are ‘turning into a prison’ for migrants

Newly arrived migrants are transferred by Spanish police to a temporary location after arriving at the coast of Gran Canaria island, Spain, on Nov. 1. Crossing the Atlantic Ocean sailing on a wooden boat, a group of 44 migrants had arrived at Maspalomas beach. (AP Photo/Javier Bauluz)Newly arrived migrants are transferred by Spanish police to a temporary location after arriving at the coast of Gran Canaria island, Spain, on Nov. 1. Crossing the Atlantic Ocean sailing on a wooden boat, a group of 44 migrants had arrived at Maspalomas beach. (AP Photo/Javier Bauluz)

The Mediterranean migrant crisis has moved to the Atlantic. In the port of Arguineguín in the Canary Islands, approximately 2,000 migrants are in police custody, sheltered in a makeshift camp on a pier originally set up as a Covid-19 testing site and emergency shelter for 400 people. Most are young men, but there is an increasing number of families and unaccompanied minors.

Those who cannot fit in the few tents provided are sleeping rough on concrete. The port in front of them is full of pateras and cayucos, the small boats used in the precarious voyage across the Atlantic from West Africa. Another 5,000 migrants are being housed in hotels.

As the latest surge landed, the Grand Canary Island’s already strained immigration services were overwhelmed. So far this year, over 16,760 migrants have survived clandestine voyages from Africa’s west coast to Spain’s Canary Islands, more than 5,500 arriving over just the last two weeks. With at least 493 deaths recorded so far this year, up from 210 in all of 2019, the route to the Spanish archipelago has seen proportionally more deaths per every arrival than the Central Mediterranean journey from Libya to Italy or Malta. The perilous trip from far-flung Senegal can take up to two weeks in rough waters.

Migrant landings on the Canary Islands are not exactly a new phenomenon, according to the Rev. Antonio Viera, chaplain of the immigrant detention center Barranco Seco in Las Palmas, a little over 30 miles from Arguineguín. “The first immigrants arrived from Morocco 25 years ago,” he said. But in all the time since, “the government never made the effort to build adequate infrastructure, so now we have the port of shame,” he said.

So far this year, over 16,760 migrants have survived clandestine voyages from Africa’s west coast to Spain’s Canary Islands, more than 5,500 arriving over just the last two weeks.

Now “we’re receiving a huge amount of immigrants,” Father Viera said, and “we’re in a situation where their rights are being infringed on.”

Advocates are concerned not only about basic living conditions for migrants but also about safeguarding their legal rights. Jesuit Migrant Service-Spain and other advocacy groups fear deportation orders are being issued without migrants receiving legal assistance or proper representation. There have also been cases of those eligible for asylum being deported.

Carolina Darias, head of the Ministry of Territorial Policy, announced a new emergency plan to address the spike in migrant landings and the situation in Arguineguín on Nov. 13. She said additional facilities would be ready “in a matter of days” but did not specify when everyone in emergency shelters there would be rehoused. As she spoke, an additional tent camp in a dirt field not far from the Barranco Seco detention center was being set up, but no one had been transferred there as of Nov. 13.

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In the meantime, migrants keep arriving by the boatload.

The last time the Canary Islands saw a surge in immigration was 2006, with 35,000 arrivals. For most of the last decade, though, the number of migrants landing at the Grand Canary, Lanzarote and Fuerteventura islands have only been in the hundreds. The uptick started in 2018, the same year migration to Spain over the Mediterranean sharply dropped.

Increased armed attacks by Islamic militants in Mali have displaced hundreds of thousands of people. Many are seeking to rebuild their lives in Europe.

According to Josep Buades Fuster, S.J., coordinator at Jesuit Migrant Service-Spain, both the European Union and individual countries like Spain have invested millions in blocking the Mediterranean route and urging countries such as Morocco to deter irregular immigration. And it has worked. Though 26,168 people still crossed the Mediterranean to Spain in 2019, that figure is less than half the number that crossed in 2018. In the same period, arrivals to the Canary Islands doubled. Now they have exploded.

“It’s as if Morocco has been ignoring or actually encouraging people to use the Atlantic route,” Father Fuster said.

Moroccans represent the largest contingent of contemporary migrants, though there is a strong presence also of sub-Saharan Africans, especially from Mali.

Father Fuster explained that Morocco frequently uses the flow of migrants as a negotiation chip with Spain. The countries are separated by just the 10 miles of the Strait of Gibraltar and have a shared border along Spain’s North Africa provinces of Melilla and Ceuta.

Morocco supplies much of the seasonal labor needed to get Spain’s fruits and vegetables to market, but the two countries are also agricultural competitors. They both are also laying claim to a recently discovered, mineral-rich undersea volcano.

Migrants have been held much longer than usual in detention and fewer have been transferred to the mainland. The Canary Islands are “turning into a prison.”

The economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is an important driver in recent migration. Alicia Rodriguez of the Spanish Commission for the Assistance of Refugees, a nonprofit that works with asylum seekers, points out that although Covid-19 rates are low in Africa, the continent is still suffering economically. Pandemic restrictions limiting commercial activities in African countries like Morocco and Senegal and putting a halt to global tourism, an important industry in both countries, have left many people who worked in the informal economy in West Africa without an income.

In Senegal, the local fishing industry is also being shouldered aside because of fishing rights granted to other countries, including Spain. Large-scale commercial fishing by foreign boats has diminished Senegalese catches, making it hard for local fishermen to earn a living, Father Fuster said.

Increased armed attacks by Islamic militants in Mali have displaced hundreds of thousands of people. They have been declared refugees by the United Nations, and many are seeking to rebuild their lives in Europe.

The Spanish government’s recent change in policies toward immigration are also contributing to the pile-up of new arrivals. According to Father Fuster, until the middle of 2019 most migrants who arrived at the Canary Islands were held briefly in the archipelago’s three detention centers for irregular immigrants. They were then transferred to mainland Spain, where they were usually released to fend for themselves.

Falling off the radar of local Spanish authorities, they could continue on to other European countries, reunite with family or find informal work in Spain. But over the last year, according to Father Fuster, migrants have been held much longer than usual in detention and fewer have been transferred to the mainland, even as arrivals have increased. Spanish law permits migrants to be held for up to 60 days.

The Canary Islands, as a result, are “turning into a prison,” Father Viera said.

Deportations have also increased, and advocates are worried that migrants are not receiving proper legal assistance before being processed out of the country, especially those who could be eligible for asylum.

“We are very concerned about Malians being deported because it can truly endanger their lives.”

Spain has had a longstanding agreement with Mauritania that allows it to deport to Mauritania anyone suspected of having passed through there on their way to Spain, regardless of nationality. As a result, most sub-Saharans are deported to Mauritania. Mauritian authorities typically then send them over the border in the direction of their country of origin. All too often, Malians have gotten caught up in this deportation trap.

“We are very concerned about Malians being deported because it can truly endanger their lives,” Father Viera said.

He tries to keep track of the deportation orders to ensure that no one who could apply for asylum gets expelled, but in the first three months of 2020, before deportation flights were suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic, three flights with 162 migrants were sent to Mauritania. Among them were 130 Malians.

In Mauritania, they were kept in prison for three days without food and then sent back to Mali. Father Fuster has kept in touch with some of them to try to help, but he has no way of proving they were not given adequate legal assistance to make a case for their return to Spain.

Deportations resumed with a flight to Mauritania on Nov. 10. As far as Fathers Fuster and Viera know, there were no Malians on board. Still, it hurts to watch the hopes of immigrants, who often have families depending on their success, be dashed by anti-immigration policy, they said. Father Viera visited a group at the detention center a day before they were to be deported and gave them backpacks full of clothing.

“For when we are free,” one young man said.

The young man apparently had no idea he was being deported, Father Viera realized. “It was a feeling of sadness and pain and helplessness,” he said.

And it will not be the last time he is likely to have that feeling. On Nov. 13, Ms. Darias announced that the Spanish government wants to put an end to illegal immigration by speeding up deportations and closing the Atlantic route, even as it has committed to being more careful about deporting those eligible for asylum. It has allocated 590 million euros to ratchet up surveillance of the route through collaboration with the Moroccan and Senegalese police, as well as with Frontex, Europe’s border control agency.

Closing the sea route could save lives. The International Organization for Migration has called the Atlantic route the deadliest water route to Europe. An analysis of I.O.M. data by The Associated Press found that while one in 52 people die crossing the Mediterranean, one in 24 are lost migrating across the Atlantic. In addition to the 493 known to have died attempting to reach the Canary Islands, the I.O.M. believes another 391 victims may have been lost this year.

But, as decades of experience show, enhanced vigilance will not solve the problem. As long as violence, poverty and famine continue in Africa, these factors will push people from their homelands out onto the sea.

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