After perilous Atlantic journey, migrants await their fate in Canary Island hotels

By Raphael Minder

After braving the Atlantic on a rickety and overcrowded fishing boat for six days, a group of young Senegalese has spent the past three weeks in a three-star hotel in the Canary Islands, overlooking a spectacular beach lapped by pristine waters.

While relieved to have survived their perilous journey to the Canary Islands, which has become the most deadly crossing from Africa into Europe for migrants, the six young men also know that their hotel stay is not a fairy-tale end to their odyssey.

“After this crazy trip, I am happy to be alive, but I really have no idea how long I can stay here and where I can go next,” said Ousseynou Diop, 19, who boarded the fishing boat in the Senegalese port of Saint-Louis on Nov. 1.

About 20,000 migrants have reached the Canary Islands so far this year, despite several deadly shipwrecks off Senegal and other African countries as well as some that occurred just as the boats were reaching the shores of the Spanish archipelago. At least 568 people have died while crossing from Africa to the Spanish islands between January and late November, according to the International Organization for Migration.

The sudden influx of migrants has caught Spanish authorities flat-footed, even though rights activists and other experts had been warning that traffickers were likely to divert to the Canary Islands after an increase in patrols virtually shut down many Mediterranean routes into Europe, notably from Libya.

Instead, Spain is now pressuring its partners in the European Union to establish a system to distribute migrants equitably across member countries and asking Morocco and other African nations to take back those without a legal claim to remain, at a time when travel restrictions related to the coronavirus have greatly complicated deportations.

“We are the southern border of Europe, not of Spain,” Hana Jalloul, Spain’s amigration secretary, said in a video conference call with a group of foreign correspondents late last month. Other European countries that receive fewer migrants “should take into account our situation,” she added.

The steady influx of migrants is hitting Spain as the coronavirus has stifled its economy — particularly its cornerstone, tourism. Since March, the Canary Islands have only seen a fraction of the 13 million tourists who came last year for the beaches and the mild climate, much in demand during the European winter. In October, there were 88% fewer foreign visitors than in the same month last year.

Since the summer, as an emergency solution, the Spanish government has moved about 6,000 migrants from tents in Arguineguín — a port on Gran Canaria, one of the main islands of the archipelago — to 17 hotels that have been shuttered by the pandemic, several of them in the beach town of Puerto Rico.

The move was initially welcomed by local hoteliers, who received about 45 euros, or $55, a day from authorities in return for providing food and lodgings for each migrant, but tensions have built up as the flow of arrivals has shown no sign of easing.

Late last month, hundreds of residents demonstrated to demand the departure of the migrants, saying that their presence could deter European tourists as the winter season starts.

“We should put them on planes and send them home because we have people living here who have invested a lot of money to fill this beautiful place with tourists, and certainly not migrants,” said one of the protesters, Teresa García Llarena, a pensioner and former employee of a car rental company.

The island’s main association of hoteliers did not back the protest, but its Dutch president, Tom Smulders, said that “this crisis situation has got as far as it could go,” and he urged Spain’s government to evacuate all migrants from hotels by the end of the year.

Spain’s government is led by a socialist prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, and the regional government of the Canary Islands is also socialist-led. But the politicians have struggled to coordinate their response to the islands’ migration crisis. The archipelago’s politicians say the central government reacted too late and is now scrambling to rebuild infrastructure that was unnecessarily dismantled after 2006, when the islands last witnessed a mass influx, with about 36,000 arrivals that year.

Once the Mediterranean became harder to cross for migrants, “we had the capacity to do a lot more to prepare for this, but I think that somebody in Madrid thought that the Canary Islands had somehow magically changed their location on the map and migrants would never get here again,” Noemí Santana, the regional minister for social rights in the Canary Islands, said in an interview.

While adult migrants are the responsibility of the central government, Santana and her officials act as legal guardians for about 2,000 underage and unaccompanied migrants scattered across several youth centers.

Their number has quadrupled since January, and like the adults, the children are mostly Moroccans. Many first traveled from inland Morocco to the shores of the Western Sahara, a long-standing territorial conflict area where hostilities recently resumed.

Saïd, 16, and his cousin Mohamed, 17, left their town of El Kelaa des Srarhna, northeast of the tourism hub of Marrakech, to reach Dakhla, in the Western Sahara, where they then boarded a boat bound for the Canary Islands.

Saïd said his elder brother paid traffickers about 1,000 euros (about $1,212) for his trip. “The young people in Morocco can now only look forward to misery, because there is the coronavirus, so really no way to work and earn money,” said Saïd, whose full name cannot be disclosed under Spanish rules that protect underage migrants.

Saïd and his cousin are in a youth center with a makeshift prayer area, a soccer pitch and leafy surroundings, in the grounds of an abandoned farmhouse.

One of the directors of the local nongovernment association running the center, Enrique Quintana, said his job at times felt like “looking after vulnerable babies,” because “migrating to another country with a different language and culture means that you really start again from zero, whatever you might have achieved before in your life.”

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