The Spanish authorities have transferred 1,000 migrants to the “continent” and published data to show there is no security emergency, in order to try to ease the growing tensions that have arisen in the Canary Islands archipelago, and in particular on the island of Gran Canaria. Located just north of the Tropic of Cancer, opposite the coast of Morocco and close to that of Western Sahara, these volcanic patches of land emerging from the Atlantic Ocean represent the southernmost portion of the Schengen Area.
“There are more than 2,000 unaccompanied foreign minors on the islands, and about 9,000 adults, hosted at different facilities,” said Anselmo Pestana last Thursday, the delegate of the Spanish government to the autonomous community. The numbers on refugees hosted were presented alongside those on criminality, which “has decreased by 6% in the last four months of 2020, even during the months of greatest migratory pressure.” There were 122 total offenses committed by those who had landed, half involving false documents.
The clarification has become necessary to counter the spread of fake news. With the proliferation of false alarms and accusations of violence, often against women, which have not been confirmed by the authorities, the number of views of controversial videos showing scenes of tension between migrants and residents has increased. One was reportedly filmed in Naples. Pestana denounced the far-right Vox party, which is fanning the flames of discontent on the tropical islands and in the parliament in Madrid.
In 2020, the Atlantic migration route has seen a boom: a 756.8% increase of arrivals compared to 2019, for a total of 23,023 people (source: Spanish Interior Ministry). To that number, we must add the 1,815 who, according to the NGO Caminando Fronteras, have lost their lives in 45 shipwrecks. Experts believe that there are a number of causes for this surge: the economic and social effects of the pandemic in West Africa, the growing difficulty of traveling along other migration routes to Europe, and the political interests of neighboring Morocco.
Since December, the Spanish government has made it more difficult to leave the islands and reach the continent, beginning to set up controls at ports and airports. In order to prevent internal movement, it has also invoked the regulations against COVID-19. When on Spanish territory, thanks to the 2009 asylum law and important court rulings, asylum seekers have the right to free movement after the 72 hours necessary for identification.
The block on movement has contributed to increasing tensions in a territory which is experiencing growing economic difficulties, also due to the collapse of tourist flows. From February 2020 to January 2021, the number of unemployed has increased from about 200,000 to 279,230 (Data: Canary Islands Institute of Statistics). One person in four has no job. Thus, migrants risk becoming the perfect scapegoat for an explosive situation.
In recent weeks, there have been tensions and protests in Las Palmas, the capital of Gran Canaria, in the neighborhoods of El Lasso and Las Rehoyas, where the presence of recent arrivals comes in the context of a longstanding social malaise. At the same time, many other inhabitants have publicly condemned the episodes of racism, recalling that historically, the Canary Islands have been a land of migration and welcoming foreigners (over 2,700 people have also signed a petition saying this).
The Spanish islands look like they’re going to be the setting for a movie we’ve already seen. The EU is channeling migratory flows onto peripheral states, or to places beyond its border, and they are doing the same with border territories. Even here, in the middle of the Atlantic, the inevitable white tents in which the refugees can be hidden away have arrived. Just like those set up long ago in Lesbos, Chios, Samos and along the Balkan route. “We do not want to become prison-islands,” human rights activists and local politicians are saying.
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