Madrid, Spain – The body of an unknown man was one of nearly 2,200 refugees and migrants who landed in the Canary Islands over the weekend. This is a new record for arrivals as Spain struggles to control a new migratory crisis on Europe’s southernmost border.
Refugee agencies fear that a humanitarian crisis could arise in the archipelago as the huge increase in arrivals from West Africa is nowhere to be accommodated.
More than 1,500 people sleep in tents at the Arguineguin Dock in Mogán, a town in Gran Canaria that is usually popular with tourists enjoying the winter sunshine.
About 5,000 more are being accommodated in empty hotels as the islands’ tourist season has stalled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Aid organizations claim that without swift action by the Spanish government, the situation could reflect the tense refugee crisis in Greece.
Migrants from Morocco walk along the coast accompanied by Spanish police after arriving on the coast of the Canary Island [File: Javier Bauluz/AP Photo]As the Spanish economy has been hit by COVID-19, some angry islanders resent the presence of thousands of refugees and migrants staying in hotels at the taxpayer’s expense, providing fertile ground for the far right Vox party to order to exploit the problem.
The influx of people from West Africa is reminiscent of an earlier crisis in 2006 when 30,000 migrants made the dangerous Atlantic crossing to the islands.
Maria Greco from the refugee rights group Entre Mares (Between the Seas) says Spain has learned nothing from the first crisis.
“What we see now is unbearable. We had 14 years to learn from our lessons from the last migration crisis in 2006 and we failed, ”she told Al Jazeera.
“Hundreds of people sleep poorly in the Arguineguin Dock in Mogán. Thousands more live in tourist hotels. In November 2018, the EU migration force Frontex held a conference in the Canary Islands warning that the traffickers had changed their routes but nothing had been done. “
Greco said living conditions in the Canary Islands will soon resemble the worst and overcrowded Greek refugee camps unless urgent action is taken.
“These people are being denied the right to see lawyers and the press has complained that the Red Cross does not allow journalists to speak to them,” she said.
Migrants from a group of 1,300 rescued from various boats remain in the port of Arguineguin while they are looked after by the Spanish Red Cross and the national police on the Spanish Canary Island of Gran Canaria [File: Desiree Martin/AFP]So far this year, the number of refugees and migrants landing in the Canary Islands has increased by 664 percent compared to the same period last year. According to the Spanish government, 11,409 had reached the seven islands by November 1st.
The smugglers have switched routes and moved on the more dangerous route between West Africa and the Spanish archipelago, rather than across the Mediterranean to southern Spain.
The number of people crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Spain this year has decreased by 27.8 percent compared to the same period last year. 14,252 came to Europe, compared to 19,733 in the previous year.
According to media reports, human traffickers have cut their prices from around $ 2,377 to around $ 951.
According to Greco, the boats not only depart from Morocco and Mauritania, the two nations closest to the archipelago, but also from Senegal and Gambia, more than 1,000 kilometers further south.
Most attempts to cross have come from the Sahel and West Africa, she added.
However, some arrivals are from South Sudan and the Comoros in the Indian Ocean.
“That weekend, at least 2,188 people came to the islands in 58 small boats and kayaks. It’s a new record that we’ve never seen before, ”Txema Santana of the Spanish Commission for Refugee Aid (CEAR) told Al Jazeera.
Santana said the smugglers changed their routes after the EU paid Morocco $ 460 million to support reforms, including border management – acronym for aid in curbing departures.
Morocco started removing refugees and migrants from its north coast and they headed towards the south and west coasts to begin the upswing towards the Canary Islands.
But the new pattern has sparked a backlash among some islanders struggling with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Vox, the far-right Spanish party, the third largest in the Spanish Parliament with 52 legislators, has criticized the Spanish government for imposing restrictions on the population to contain COVID-19, but allowing refugees and migrants to arrive freely.
Alberto Rodriguez Almeida, the Vox MP for Las Palmas in the Canary Islands, took part in a demonstration against “illegal immigrants” in Mogán last month.
“We don’t want the islands to become the new Lampedusa. We should expel the illegal immigrants, ”he told Al Jazeera.
Socialists lead the Spanish national government in Madrid and the regional administration in the Canary Islands, but the migration problem has dwarfed them.
Canary Islands Government President Angel Victor Torres on Monday called for an urgent response to recent arrivals.
Ylva Johansson, EU Interior Commissioner, highlighted concerns in Brussels about the recent surge on Europe’s borders and visited the islands last Friday with Spanish Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska.
“The significant increase in migratory pressure across the Atlantic route to the Canary Islands is a European challenge that requires European solidarity,” said Johansson at a press conference.
Grande-Marlaska promised to house the hundreds sleeping in the port of Arguineguin in Mogan in the next few weeks.
“Our goal is to ensure the dignity of migrants as a first priority,” he said.
A Spanish government spokeswoman said when they came to power in January there were only 100 emergency shelters for migrants in the Canary Islands, but now there are around 4,000 and more are opening.
It denied refugees and migrants the right to see lawyers or speak freely to the media.
Some inevitably paid the highest price to start a new life in Europe.
Last month, at least 140 migrants who came to Europe via the Canary Islands drowned after a boat carrying around 200 people sank off the Senegalese coast.
The boat caught fire and capsized shortly after leaving the city of Mbour, said the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Around 600 people were reportedly saved.
According to the IOM, at least 414 people died on this route this year. A total of 210 deaths were recorded throughout 2019.