The Canary Islands face tensions over migrants’ arrival

Photo by JonRo/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The COVID-19 pandemic has not stopped the increase in migrant arrivals in Europe that began with the turbulent exodus of millions of people from Syria, which recently marked the 10-year anniversary of its war.

One of the epicenters of these migratory movements is the Canary archipelago of Spain. In 2020, 23,000 migrants arrived in the Canary Islands, one of Spain's 17 autonomous communities made up of eight islands, located 95 km from the African continent and with a population of two million.

Migrants come not only by sea from Africa. About 90 percent are Latin American migrants who arrive on the islands by plane. However, the media often focuses on migrants coming from the African continent.

The migrants face various obstacles along the way and upon arrival in the Canary Islands. This situation has generated several controversies for NGOs working with migrants and government officials in Spain.

One example is the rescue of the 2-year-old girl who, together with her mother and her sister, arrived from Mali in the port of Arguineguín in the Grand Canary Island in March in critical condition. The little girl was taken to the hospital after a resuscitation attempt by the nurses on the dock where she landed. She passed away on Sunday, March 21 from cardiac arrest.

This tragic incident triggered extraordinary reactions. Even the President of the Government of Spain, Pedro Sánchez, and the leader of the opposition, Pablo Casado, have issued statements expressing condolences. On social networks people have expressed their bewilderment regarding the death of the little girl.

Another unfortunate event was the death of three people caused by the overturning of a boat during a rescue on March 26. 

There have also been anti-migrant marches on the Canary Islands, involving xenophobic acts and violating the curfew established by the authorities.

The Red Cross in the spotlight

At the end of February 2021, 64 migrants were expelled from a camp in the Canary Islands and left on the street, increasing the number of migrants who are already in this precarious situation. The expelled migrants said they were thrown out after they refused to share a tent with another group because it would have made it impossible for them to follow the required social distancing measures during the pandemic.

Faced with these accusations, the Red Cross stated that the migrants acted violently and that some did not wish to continue with their migratory journey, rejecting the help offered by the Red Cross. This argument was refuted by those expelled.

Reacting to the expulsion of migrants from the camp known as Camp 50, solidarity movements such as the Solidarity Platform for People in Movement (known as Somos Red in Spanish) made up of individual citizens, groups and associations, have denounced the way the Red Cross managed this situation with these migrants.

The residents who live near the camps do not agree with the lack of resources for the migrants and the disinterest shown by the institutions for their situation. The residents have supported migrants by providing food and blankets to keep them warm during the night. The Somos Red platform has held various meetings with local authorities highlighting the flaws in the strategy deployed on the islands. They also demand urgent action by the Spanish government, as well as the European Union.

At the beginning of March, the Principality of Asturias, another autonomous community in northern Spain, offered to host unaccompanied minors who are in the Canary Islands. Along with Asturias, eight other autonomous communities will host 200 minors. Currently, the government of the autonomous community of the Canary Islands takes care of 2,500 minors.

It is not the first time that the Red Cross has been in the spotlight. It was also criticized by other sectors of the population. At the end of 2020, a video was leaked in which Red Cross volunteers and a group of migrants can be seen dancing without respecting social distancing measures. In contrast to the support for the migrants shown by their Canarian neighbors in the past, this incident sparked a series of anti-migrant protests on the social networks and citizens organizing against migrants. The Red Cross publicly apologized for the behavior of its volunteers, which negatively impacted its public image.

Migrants without asylum

The difficulty of legalizing the status of migrants is one of the factors contributing to this dire situation on the islands. In the Canary Islands, the total number of international protection claims filed is 3,984 out of 23,000 arrivals to the archipelago.

Another factor is the lack of information, since many migrants do not know that they have the right to request asylum or international protection. Moreover, the islands lack sufficient resources to process asylum applications which require many public defenders who can properly assist migrants, as well as interpreters to facilitate the legal work.

In 2020, 5,700 people were granted international protection in Spain, representing 5 percent of the applications submitted. According to a report by the Spanish Commission for Refugee Aid (CEAR), Spain ranks below France and Germany in terms of granting asylum to refugees, even though it is the country that receives the highest number of applications.

The Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Arancha González Laya, has stated that currently there is a debate at the European Union level to regularize migration and asylum. Some measures being considered are increasing the job opportunities in countries of origin and transit, such as Morocco and Libya, to improve their socio-economic situation, and investigating criminal organizations dealing with human trafficking.

Update: we corrected the geographical location of the Canary Islands, which are 95km from the African continent, not the European continent.

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