Migration and displacement – Spain

As the pandemic bites, growing numbers of refugees and migrants risk the dangerous Atlantic crossing to the Canary Islands

Anna Alboth

‘Maybe you can work remotely during COVID-19, but in my country, already before the pandemic, half of the population was jobless’, says Adama, a 25-year-old man from Senegal. He arrived in Tenerife, one of the Canary Islands, on a boat carrying 50 people from Saint Louis just five months ago. ‘Isn’t it ironic that the big boats stealing fish from our waters, not leaving anything for us, are from the European countries that do not give us Senegalese legal visas or even seasonal work?’

Adama chose the boat because he had no other possibilities. ‘I was sending letters and applications to different countries. I tried to register for schools and aid programmes. I thought I would be someone who can manage, who doesn’t need to come to Europe. But look around: now there are here not only fishermen who lost their fish because of European and Chinese business in Senegal, but also taxi drivers, hotel owners and businessmen whose businesses collapsed in 2020.’

Many people in the same situation as Adama are now travelling to the Canary Islands from Senegal or Gambia, along what is known as the West African migratory route. We have all read about the Central Mediterranean route running from Libya to Malta or Italy. We have all seen hundreds, even thousands, of pictures of refugees following the Eastern Mediterranean route from Turkey to Greece. But how many people are aware that in 2020 more than 23,000 people arrived in the Canary Islands?

Before, refugees would typically try to cross from the north of Morocco through the Spanish enclaves of Melilla or Ceuta. But since the European Union (EU) paid €175 million to Morocco in return for ‘improved migration management’, border control has been strengthened and migration paths have changed in response. While ongoing local conflicts such as those in Mali or Congo, as well as drought in Morocco, have contributed to this shift, the pandemic has also been an important driver. Indeed, COVID-19 has not only influenced many people in their decision to take the West African route, but has also led smugglers to change their usual paths in response to local lockdowns. The Mixed Migration Centre ran a series of surveys among migrants in different regions from the beginning of the pandemic until the end of 2020. In its final global survey, published in December 2020, it noted that the economic fallout of COVID-19 had been a factor in deciding to leave for 30 per cent of the West African migrants surveyed in the region. In one of the mid-year reports, nearly 70 per cent of West African migrants noted that the pandemic had made it harder to cross borders.

To better understand the scale of the challenges involved in the West African route, a quick look at a map is needed. In a straight line, at their closest point, there is 100 kilometres of ocean between Morocco and Fuerteventura, one of the islands. By way of comparison: those making the hazardous trip between Turkey and Greece travel between 12 and 15 kilometres at sea. Most of those travelling the West African route begin their journey in Dakhla, which lies 400 kilometres south of the Canary Islands along the coast of Western Sahara. However, during 2020 other routes became increasingly popular despite the even greater risks involved: from Mauritania, Senegal, Ghana or even Guinea, almost 2,500 kilometres away.

The boat trips that the refugees take involve sometimes as much as 12 days out on the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Twelve days without sun protection, in soaked clothes, in the wind.

The boat trips that the refugees take involve sometimes as much as 12 days out on the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Twelve days without sun protection, in soaked clothes, in the wind. Twelve days of burns and abrasions. Twelve days of hunger, because smugglers on the African side provide only enough water or rice for the first few days. Sometimes motors break down, the fuel runs out or cookers explode. Sometimes the weather is favourable. Other times the wind can carry the boats far out into the Atlantic, and then there is no rescue. More often than not, the passengers suffer from seasickness and saltwater poisoning, exhaustion and trauma. And though the cost of boarding a boat is prohibitive, with a seat now costing anywhere between €1,500 and €4,000, there is no certainty that the boat will reach its destination: right now, one in five boats is sinking.

While in 2020 this route was mainly used by men, by the spring of 2021 nearly a third of those who arrived were women and children. The refugees arrive in boats called cayucos or pateras. Not a day goes by without such a boat reaching one of the Canary Islands. Some carry 50 people, others 100, in some the number of passengers exceeds 150. After reaching the shore, many people simply ask: ‘Am I in Spain?’

It is worth taking another look at a map: the Canary Islands are 1,700 kilometres away from mainland Spain.

Most Spaniards living on the Canary Islands earn their living from tourism, running hotels, restaurants and water sports schools. The impact of COVID-19 on them has been harsh: for many months the hotels have stood empty and the tourism businesses have collapsed one by one. But now, with flights resuming and Europeans again arriving on Tenerife’s beaches, the possibility of encountering a boat carrying dozens of exhausted refugees has scared away many potential holidaymakers.

Towards the end of 2020, Spain decided to try a new approach that had the potential to shelter its growing refugee and migrant population while also providing a lifeline to its embattled tourism industry. Since the hotels on the islands were empty and there was nowhere to put the arriving refugees, the solution was obvious. Receiving government subsidies, 17 hotels, tourism complexes and holiday resorts have accepted thousands of people in need.

It appeared to be a win-win solution, but some thought otherwise. ‘Migrants on hotel balconies’, grumbled headlines. Some local residents, whose businesses were failing due to the pandemic, voiced resentment at these new arrangements. It was then that the first racist attacks, harassment and beatings began. Since then, with the construction of a number of newly built refugee camps in military barracks in Tenerife, Grand Canaria and Fuerteventura, refugees and migrants have been transferred from the hotels into these cramped, poorly serviced settlements.

One example is Las Raices in Tenerife. There are already about 2,000 people in the camp, divided into 64-person tents. There is hardly any hot water, no regular clothes supply, and people stand in lines for hours. Food is scarce, and more than a dozen people have already ended up in hospital due to poisoning. There is no doctor in the camp at night, and – as in any place where crowds of desperate people from different countries and cultures are forcibly confined in overcrowded, inhumane conditions – conflict can occur. ‘It’s no coincidence that the camp is off the beaten track’, says Roberto Mesa, one of the leading camp activists. ‘Here and all over Europe, refugees are being hidden, cut off from reality, taken out of sight.’

Leaving refugees in the middle of nowhere is just one of the many sins Spanish authorities have committed. For many months they were separating children from their parents on arrival and preventing people on the Canary Islands from crossing to the mainland. People live in fear of deportation and do not get enough information about changes in the asylum process brought on by the pandemic.

A longer analysis of how the pandemic has placed increasing pressures on refugees and migrants across Europe through heightened border restrictions, suspension of asylum processing, discriminatory restrictions and other measures is available here.

Photo: Boys from Mali watching surfers in Puerto de la Cruz, Tenerife. Since many refugees arrived at the Canary Islands this year and most of services and NGOs are not working due to Covid-19, boys spend hours looking into the waves. Credit: Karol Grygoruk/RATS agency.