The Canary Islands, a new "prison" for migrants from Europe 

A makeshift migrant boat stopped by the Spanish Guardia Civile, on the island of Gran Canaria.

RFI / Javier Bauluz

Text by: Noémie Lehouelleur

7 min

In one week, since October 17, more than 2,600 migrants from North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa have arrived in the Spanish Canary Islands, the equivalent of the whole of 2019. The authorities seem overwhelmed.

The health situation due to Covid prevents any repatriation to their countries of origin or transfer to the European continent.


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From our special correspondent on the island of Gran Canaria,

After sometimes a thousand kilometers and one to fifteen days of perilous crossing at sea, between 300 and 400 migrants each day reach the coasts of the Canary Islands archipelago, the gateway to Europe 150 kilometers west of Africa.

But this airlock to the European El Dorado now seems bottled up.

In two months, the increase in arrivals of pateras or cayucos (makeshift boats) has increased exponentially, taking the authorities by surprise.

Tested for Covid on arrival

When the cameras, helicopters and planes of the Spanish Civil Guard spot the migrants' boats off the coast, the four maritime rescue ships leave to pick up their passengers, whether or not they are in difficulty.

For the most part, they are then unloaded in the south on the island of Gran Canaria, the largest of the islands of the archipelago, at the quay of the port of Arguineguin, transformed in the last two months into an emergency triage center. .

Twelve Red Cross tents have been set up there.

As soon as they arrive at the dock, their state of health is checked, their temperature taken and a


screening test

carried out, then they are placed in quarantine under the marquees of the international organization, separated according to their date of arrival.

They will stay here for a maximum of four days, sleeping on the floor, without mattresses, and away from the cameras.

The police refused access to the site to the press and posted Civil Guard vans around the quay to make it difficult to take photographs.

About thirty hotels in the archipelago requisitioned

The migrants are finishing their quarantine in around thirty hotels in the archipelago.

Beyond two weeks of confinement, they are free to come and go but remain housed in these tourist complexes until further notice.

On the island of Gran Canaria, 3,800 are housed there, to which are added other migrants in the rest of the archipelago, on the islands of Fuerteventura, Tenerife or Lanzarote.

More than 10,000 people have arrived in makeshift boats since the start of the year.

On the beaches of the gigantic seaside resorts of Gran Canaria, migrants are now replacing the English, Norwegian or German tourists who usually take up residence there during this autumn season.

A group of young Malians and Moroccans who arrived on the island six weeks ago are playing football on the beach in Puerto Rico with a few young Canarians, in the last light of the sunset.

They've been stuck here for six weeks.


We are treated well, we have a place to stay, we eat well but we didn't come here for that.

I want to work, I want to build a new life for myself in Europe, 

”says Aboubakar, a 20-year-old Malian who fled the fighting that punctuates the daily life of his village near Mopti.

The young man says he has not been informed of his rights and has therefore not yet filed any asylum application.

Covid obliges, the borders are closed.

These young people can therefore neither be repatriated to their country of origin nor transferred to the continent.

The Spanish central government is issuing permits in a trickle fashion.

Hoteliers are reluctant to admit it, but after a catastrophic tourist season showing a 66% drop in attendance, this financial windfall is falling sharply.

However, since the United Kingdom and Germany announced Monday, October 22 relaunching flights to the archipelago, the presence of migrants seem to bother some.

This gives a bad image which could tarnish the tourist economy

 ", scares the mayor of the municipality of San Bartolomé de Tirajana, Conchi Narvaez.

One in sixteen migrants dies during the crossing

The archipelago had not experienced such a migratory crisis for more than ten years.

In 2006, more than 30,000 migrants had thus joined the archipelago, "

 but there was no Covid at the time,"

recalls Jose Antonio Rodriguez Verona, responsible within the Red Cross for operations of emergency with migrants from Gran Canaria.

At present, they arrive in the Canaries and remain in the Canaries. 


The five Spanish ministries concerned by this humanitarian crisis would not succeed in coordinating (Foreign Affairs, Interior, Defense, Migration and Social Affairs) according to the mayor of the municipality of Mogan, on which the port of Arguineguin depends.

Onalia Bueno calls for the dismantling of the temporary facilities of the Red Cross.


We suffer from the lack of communication between these ministries and their internal battles

,” she said.

(...) The government has empty military installations that can accommodate thousands of migrants and where a welcome worthy of the name to be brought to them, whether here on the archipelago or on the peninsula.

These migrants do not want to stay here.

It is a prison surrounded by water for them. 


Friday, October 23, 1,350 migrants were counted on the quay, waiting to be redirected to hotels.

With the Red Cross tents saturated, around 400 men sleep outside, enduring cold, rain or heat day and night.

An untenable situation denounced by Arcadio Diaz Tejera, the judge in charge of the detention center located in the north of the island, where around twenty migrants are currently staying.


It is unworthy, inhuman.

We cannot treat human beings like this,

he was scandalized during a visit to the device of the Quai d'Arguineguin on Thursday, October 22, while paying tribute to the work of the Red Cross.

We could have foreseen this situation upstream, when the Mediterranean roads were closed.

It was obvious that the route to the Canaries was going to intensify, and that will amplify.

 According to him, beyond 72 hours, migrants cannot be legally detained by the authorities on this wharf.

Read also: Canary Islands: an unprecedented influx of migrants for 10 years

The strengthening of the operations of the European Border Control Agency (Frontex), in parallel with agreements made by member countries of the European Union with Morocco, Libya and Turkey for the surveillance of their coasts, have changed the habits of smugglers.

They start from further afield, often from Dakhla in southern Morocco, in Western Sahara, or from the Mauritanian, Senegalese or Gambian coasts.

A less supervised crossing of course, but expensive (more or less 1,500 euros) and more risky.

According to figures from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), on average one in sixteen passengers perishes during the crossing.

► See also: Spain: migrants take the dangerous sea route of the Canaries


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