In October, more than 5,000 migrants reached Spain's Canary Islands | Photo: Europa Press / picture-alliance / dpa
In October, more than 5,000 migrants reached Spain's Canary Islands | Photo: Europa Press / picture-alliance / dpa

While Mediterranean crossings are down this year, the number of arrivals across the Atlantic Ocean to Spain's Canary Islands has increased almost sevenfold compared to 2019. The treacherous Atlantic route to Europe has claimed over 400 lives so far in 2020. As authorities on the islands are struggling to cope with the pandemic and NGOs and officials alike are pressing for more help from the government, the local population is starting to lose its patience.

"When the sea is calm, you can be certain: In the next 24 hours, another boat will be washed up." Jenice Schwob, a 29-year-old paramedic from Germany, has been assisting migrants who arrive by boat on the Spanish Canary Islands since August. In an interview with German daily FAZ, she said she has since seen 15 boats arrive on Lanzarote alone.

Not since 2006 has a similarly high number of African migrants landed on Spain's Atlantic islands in such a short period of time: In the four weeks between September 28 and October 25, an estimated 5,200 migrants arrived on the islands, almost twice as many as in September and more than six times as many as in August. That's according to data provided by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

In other words: More than half of all people who arrived on the islands in the first ten months of this year arrived in October. And to put things into perspective, the Canaries accounted for more than 40% of all 24,000 migrant arrivals the whole of Spain saw from January to October, UNHCR data shows.

Most boats and rescuees arrive on Gran Canaria, the second-most populous island of the Canaries behind Tenerife. At the dock area of Arguineguín, a small fishing village on Gran Canaria's southern coast, some 1,000 newcomers were waiting for days last week (October 19-25) for a spot in the overcrowded reception facilities.

Screenshot of Western Africa region with Spain's Canary Islands in the top middle | Credit: Google Maps
Screenshot of Western Africa region with Spain's Canary Islands in the top middle | Credit: Google Maps

Spain's Canary Islands, which consists of seven large and several smaller islands, are located some 100 kilometers (62 miles) west of the African coast, with Morocco and the disputed territory of Western Sahara being the closest mainland countries. Around 2.2 million people call the archipelago home.

This is not the first time the migration route between Africa and the Canaries saw a surge. In 2006, 32,000 migrants arrived on the islands. "Since then, however, only a few boats have dared to make the journey -- not least because the route is considered the most dangerous crossing in the world," DW reporter Jan-Philipp Scholz wrote recently. This year, it's been roughly 11,000 arrivals so far.

Makeshift harbor camp

In the early morning of Wednesday (October 21), 300 rescued migrants joined the hundreds who were already waiting in Arguineguín's dock area. Women and at least three toddlers were among the migrants at the makeshift camp, AP reported in a feature report. They slept in emergency tents set up by the Red Cross, many on the floor for days with only a blanket.

The FAZ calls arriving on one of the Canary Islands as a migrant "sobering:" After being registered, they receive the bare necessities. Jenice Schwab, the German paramedic, said there is a shortage of hygiene articles, sanitary facilities and mattresses.

Next, the migrants undergo identification procedures while also being under police supervision for three full days, according to AP. Then, "new arrivals would normally be transferred to migrant centers if they qualify for deportation, or to facilities run by non-governmental groups, especially if they apply for asylum," AP reported.

The Spanish government has reportedly blocked nearly all transfers to the Spanish mainland. It argues that as most international borders are closed, deportations cannot take place, and migrants cannot continue on to other European countries. Since October 2019, Spanish authorities have only allowed 1,000 migrants to travel the roughly 1,000 kilometers onwards to the mainland, most of them women and children.

Until early 2020, Spain returned many migrants by plane to countries of origin with whom Spain has struck corresponding agreements. But since the outbreak of the pandemic, the flights have been put on hold.

To make room at the dock in Arguineguín, some migrants have been sent to empty hotels, military barracks and sports facilities. "Still, with more than 300 arrivals per day, authorities have been unable to properly deal with the influx," according to AP. Meanwhile, Spanish reported that the "government has not yet created the promised stable reception network or accelerated transfers" to mainland Spain.

On Wednesday, Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez acknowledged "a problem of arrivals in the Canaries" and that much remained to be done on the islands. According to the local government, the makeshift facilities in Arguineguín were a response to "an exceptional need, given the intensifying and increasing arrivals of migrants." The government was working "around the clock" to find more suitable locations, it added.

'Nobody knows how many people drown'

"Suddenly, we heard air leaking from the inflatable boat," Abdul Kamara recently told DW. "I had the feeling that this could really be the end. I was only thinking of my little sister, who would have to do without me. I was in a state of shock."

Kamara first arrived on the Canaries in early summer. Back then, the waves were dangerously high. The young Guinean had already spent three days in a rubber dinghy after departing from Morocco. He only survived the perilous journey because he and the other migrants in the boat were eventually able to patch up the leak and reach Fuerteventura, reported DW's Jan-Philipp Scholz.

With nearly every additional boat that tries to reach the Canary Islands, the number of lost human lives also increases. IOM's Missing Migrants Project estimates that between January 1 and October 12, at least 414 migrants have died trying to reach the archipelago, almost twice as many fatalities as in all of last year. Just last Saturday (October 24), 140 migrants drowned when a boat carrying around 200 capsized off Senegal. Aside from drowning, dehydration is the most common cause of death.

Caminando Fronteras, a Spanish aid organization, even claims that a staggering 700 migrants with 23 boats have disappeared this year, most of them trying to reach the Canaries from Morocco, Mauritania and Senegal.

During her missions on Lanzarote, Jenice Schwob, the German paramedic, heard similar stories. Migrants report that they set sail with 50 to 70 people, but by the time they reach the island, often only 20, sometimes 30 people are left, she told the FAZ. Current IOM data corroborates these figures: The average number of passengers per arriving vessel is currently around 20.

In October, according to IOM data, close to 200 vessels arrived on the archipelago. These shaky wooden boats, called "Pateras" in Spanish, are typically made for only up to ten people. "We only see the boats that make it here," Schwob said. "Nobody knows how many people drown, how many boats never arrive."

Six times deadlier than the Mediterranean

A major reason for the high estimated number of unreported cases is that helping migrants in distress far away from the Canaries is a complicated endeavor. Some set sail from Guinea, located some 2,400 kilometers to the south. And if they stay on course, the overcrowded boats frequently lack sufficient fuel, water and food, according to the FAZ report.

FAZ further reported that an increasing number of arrivals hail from Senegal, which shares a border with Guinea, among them allegedly numerous fishermen who can't cope with the competition from European fishing fleets in their own waters. More migrants are also coming from Morocco, mostly because the country tightened its security on the Mediterranean coast. This has pushed traffickers and migrants to risk the perilous crossing to the Canaries, analysts and rights groups say.

So-called Pateras, the boats in which many migrants try to reach the Spanish coast on the Canaries and the mainland | Photo: D. Gormezano
So-called Pateras, the boats in which many migrants try to reach the Spanish coast on the Canaries and the mainland | Photo: D. Gormezano

And in Mali, the from August this year has driven droves of people from the war-torn country to the Spanish islands. UN refugee agency UNHCR estimates that people from Mali make up one in three arrivals by now. The number of people from the Sahel region and from states like Ivory Coast was also on the rise, among them a growing number of women and children.

What's more, there are no private sea rescue vessels currently patrolling off the Canaries, unlike off the coast of Libya. "What's happening in the Mediterranean Sea is a tragedy, no doubt, but it seems that everybody wants to close their eyes to what's happening here," Schwob told the FAZ.

Not surprisingly, trying to reach the Canaries is a lot more dangerous than trying to reach Europe. According to IOM, the odds of dying are six times higher: While around one in 100 perish in the western Mediterranean, one in 16 who attempt to cross the Atlantic toward the Canaries dies.

COVID-19 further strains emergency services

Even before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, the sharp increase in boat arrivals had already put a strain on emergency services on the Canary Islands. The virus has been posing an additional challenge. According to FAZ, there are consistently passengers on the boats who are infected and have to quarantine for 14 days together with their companions.

But even the virus cannot stop the influx of migrants to the Canaries: According to the Spanish interior ministry, nearly 21,000 more people arrived on Spanish shores so far this year than in the same period last year. All arrivals are tested for COVID-19, and if any are found positive, the need for quarantine also lengthens the asylum process, Red Cross spokesperson Jose Rodriguez Verona told

Migrants from Morocco have their temperature checked after arriving at the coast of the Canary Island, crossing the Atlantic Ocean sailing on a wooden boat on October20, 2020 | Photo: picture alliance/AP Photo
Migrants from Morocco have their temperature checked after arriving at the coast of the Canary Island, crossing the Atlantic Ocean sailing on a wooden boat on October20, 2020 | Photo: picture alliance/AP Photo

Human rights organizations have been criticizing the government for a lack of progress in handling the pandemic. Aforementioned NGO Caminando Fronteras has called on the rest of Spain to provide more support to the Canaries, warning that a failure to do so might lead to conditions like those on the Greek island of Lesbos.

Officials on the Canary Islands, too, have asked the Spanish government for more assistance, "including the use of two military facilities to process the migrants," AP reported. The officials argued that they don't have sufficient resources.

All this has been fueling the resentment among the local population. While the situation on the archipelago has remained largely peaceful so far, Greece tells a cautionary tale about what happens when locals feel left alone by the mainland government for too long: Flaring anti-migrant sentiments and clashes between police and anti-refugee protesters at the beginning of the year on the Aegean islands of Lesbos and Chios.

Not only has COVID-19 been exacerbating the tense situation on the Canary Islands, it has also a been driving up the number of arrivals in the first place, especially with fewer smugglers now available on more common migration routes. According to the Mixed Migration Center (MMC), an independent research institute based in Geneva, the social and economic impact of the pandemic is increasing Africans' wish and need to migrate as well restricting their resources.

'Welcomed, protected, promoted and integrated'

Last Wednesday (October 21), Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez told parliament that "we have to do much more" in the Canaries. His made this remark during a debate of a no-confidence motion by Vox, a far-right party that "advocates for sending back all those who arrive without visas and rejects altogether Muslim migrants," AP reported.

Although it didn't have the support for the vote to succeed, Vox went ahead with the motion to oust Sánchez anyway. Migration policies "should be subordinate to Spain's economic interests and to migrants' capacity and will to integrate," party leader Santiago Abascal said.

Defending how his left-wing coalition went about migration, Sánchez quoted Pope Francis, who said that migrants should be "Welcomed, protected, promoted and integrated."

This article is based on features by AP and FAZ


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