Spain’s migration secretary has acknowledged that the Canary Islands are struggling to cope with the arrival of more than 11,000 migrants so far this year, but says the government is working to increase reception capacity, manage migration and stop people dying at sea.
The Spanish archipelago, which lies off the coast of north-west Africa, has experienced a massive rise in arrivals compared with last year, which has left resources strained, people sleeping on docks, and the regional government saying it has been overwhelmed.
According to figures from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), 11,006 migrants have arrived in the Canaries since January this year, with 4,925 arrivals in October alone. Last year, 2,557 migrants arrived in the archipelago, up from 1,307 in 2018.
An estimated 414 people have died trying to reach the Canaries so far this year – almost double the 210 fatalities recorded in 2019.
On Saturday, at least 140 people died after a boat bound for the Canaries caught fire and then capsized off Senegal’s northwest coast.
Migration experts believe the Atlantic route from Africa to Europe has been reactivated by smuggling groups in response to socio-economic factors and conflict in west Africa, while Covid-related measures and border closures have made it more difficult for some migrants to use other routes to Europe.
Hana Jalloul, who became secretary of state for migration in Spain’s Socialist-led coalition in January, told the Guardian the arrivals were putting the Canaries’ infrastructure under the kind of pressure not seen for years.
“To give you an idea, we’ve had the same number of arrivals over the course of a single week that we had over the whole of last year,” she said.
In February, the migration ministry set up its own management centre in Tenerife with the capacity to accommodate 300-400 people and is about to open another centre. At the moment, however, the ministry is working with others to try to provide shelter to the new arrivals.
“It’s true there are quite a few NGOs helping the migrants who’ve arrived and things are a bit overwhelming at the moment,” said Jalloul.
“We’ve had such big groups arriving that we’ve had to use schools, sports centres and hotels to accommodate them. We’ve had to do all that in record time but I think we’ve handled it well because we’ve been doing PCR tests on the migrants who then go into the reception system.”
While the situation pales in comparison with 2006, when 31,000 migrants arrived in the Canaries, Jalloul said it underscored the need for an intelligent and multilateral approach to people-flows.
“Migration is a historical fact and one that’s not going to stop because of a pandemic or an economic crisis,” she said.
“It’s clear that everyone realises that we won’t be able to deal with this phenomenon unless we work in countries of origin. But we also need to focus on the mafias who abuse these people and push a dream that ends in death at sea.”
The IOM said Saturday’s accident was the deadliest shipwreck logged this year. It called for “unity between governments, partners and the international community to dismantle trafficking and smuggling networks that take advantage of desperate youth”.
The Senegalese government said its navy had rescued more than 388 people at sea over a two-week period this month, adding that it regretted “the resurgence of clandestine emigration by sea”.
Much of Spain’s current diplomatic focus is on dealing with migration at source.
“We’re putting a lot of emphasis on working jointly with countries of origin and transit to fight against clandestine migration by improving these countries’ capacity for managing migration,” said one diplomatic source.
The message, added the source, was “zero tolerance” for people-traffickers and for those trying to bypass the correct channels to enter Spain – “what’s irregular is irregular, and we won’t accept it”.
Jalloul said properly managed migration was essential to Europe as an “ageing continent” and one that celebrated social and cultural diversity.
“We don’t see migration as a problem at all: we see people dying at sea as a problem and the existence of the mafias as a problem. That’s where we need to work, but migration per se is not a problem for us.”
She also pointed out that the pandemic had revealed Spain’s dependence on people born overseas.
“There’s nothing like being fragile to show you how much others can help,” said Jalloul. “The migrants who come here help us – and they’ve shown that in the time of Covid. The migrants are the ones who have looked after people at home and in care homes. And we’ve got migrants who were looked after by the state as children going into the countryside to lend a hand now that they’re 18 or 21.”
Jalloul, who visited the Canary Islands in February, said prejudice and stereotypes often masked the incredible lengths to which people would go to escape poverty and violence.
“How can you generalise about so many people who’ve had such different life trajectories and many of whom have suffered hugely to get here?” she said.
“Many of them have been raped or mutilated, or are parents who have done everything they could for their children. In the Canaries, I met a woman who had given birth to a dead son on a small boat and who was stuck on that boat with her dead son. These people have gone through incredible hardship and sacrifice to give their children a future, as any parent would.”