Atlantic Moria in the making in overcrowded Gran Canaria camp


The arrival of 15,000 people in the Canary Islands has led to what is by now the customary response from the EU and its member states: reinforce control measures, step up deportations and accommodate people in unsuitable and unsanitary conditions. It seems that little has been learned from the humanitarian disasters in states such as Italy and Greece. Until the EU introduces humane migration policies and addresses the political economy underlying migration from countries such as Senegal, those disasters seem likely to be repeated.

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Over 15,000 people have travelled to the Canary Islands via irregular means so far in 2020, half of the total number of people arriving in Spain this year. During the first weekend of November alone, 2,188 people arrived. Compared to 2019, when a total of 1,493 people completed the journey, one can imagine the magnitude of the current situation.

References to the so-called cayuco crisis of 2006[1] – when almost 40,000 people arrived on the Canary Islands in small boats – have quickly came to the fore. Now as then, a Frontex operation is being planned off the coast and swift deportations are being put in place. However, when it comes to the conditions in which people are being held following arrival, there is no need to look far into the past for comparisons. On Gran Canaria, a camp is being set up that in many ways resembles Moria, on the Greek island of Lesvos.

The blame for these deplorable conditions lies squarely at the feet of the EU and its member states – and they also have questions to answer over the root causes of irregular migration from countries such as Senegal, where foreign fishing fleets decimate local jobs.

Preventing departures, removing arrivals

While it considers itself the most progressive government in the history of Spanish democracy, the current coalition (made up of the Socialist Party and Unidas Podemos[2]) has responded to this dire situation with reinforced border controls, deportations and the establishment of a tent camp on the island of Gran Canaria, despite the existence of places on the Spanish mainland to host people.

Frontex has already been invited to visit the island to meet with Spanish officials and is planning a joint operation near Senegal as of 2021, according to El País. Seven officials have already been deployed by the agency to assist in the identification of individuals, and the future operation may well look something like Frontex’s first ever maritime deployment, Hera, which was launched off the coast of the Canary Islands in 2006.

During several phases of Operation Hera, EU member states’ assets were deployed in the coastal areas of Senegal, Mauritania, Cape Verde and the Canary Islands to prevent departures bound for the EU. Spain also gave two boats to Mauritania to carry out border control and surveillance tasks. This tactic resembles what was later applied to the Central Mediterranean route involving Libya and Italy: the EU and its member states beefing up a weak state to shield its borders.

While a renewed Frontex border control operation is yet to materialise, there has been no hesitation in launching deportation flights. On 10 November, a plane took off from Gran Canaria to Mauritania – yet the vast majority of people on board (20 of 22) were Senegalese; the other two were citizens of Guinea and Mauritania. This is possible due to a readmission agreement signed in 2003 that allows the deportation by Spain of non-Mauritanian citizens to Mauritania, if they travelled through that country on their way to Spain. A number of irregularities and human rights concerns have been raised over similar flights earlier this year, which were funded and coordinated by Frontex.

An overcrowded camp

The increased border controls and rapid deportations have been seen before in the Canary Islands, but the conditions that people face upon arrival are more akin to those of the Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesvos. A temporary camp – containing 200 beds, but aiming to host 800 people – is being set up in an unpaved area formerly used by the army for storage. This effectively echoes the “solution” put in place after the fire that gutted Moria in September, where a supposedly temporary camp was set up in a military area as well. In the meantime, as many as 2,000 people have slept rough for days at Arguineguín harbour on Gran Canaria, where the local population of the village is around 2,300.

It is unlikely – to say the least – that the necessary social distancing or other sanitary measures can be followed as there is simply not the physical space to do so: the area of the harbour is roughly 3,500m2, less than 2m2 per person. Other rights violations that have been reported include a lack of legal assistance and translation. Most people receive no information at all about their right to lodge an asylum application or the maximum time they can be detained, and there is no one to confirm that individuals understand the information that they do receive.

As has happened in Greece and elsewhere, journalists are being denied access to the site. Javier Bauluz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, has denounced this situation:

“It is the first time I’ve encountered a prohibition so explicitly and clearly coming from the Ministry of Interior. If journalists cannot see, people will not be able to see that we are talking about human beings. This blindness is what prompts more xenophobia and hatred.”

This maintenance of deplorable conditions is not merely due to chance, incompetence or lack of funds. As Blanca Garcés and Olatz Ribera-Almandoz argue, this is a deliberate policy to deter people from coming to the EU by punishing those who do arrive with harsh, inhumane conditions after they fleeing from persecution, poverty or war. Greece has received €2.77 billion in EU migration funding since 2015, and in Moria it still left unaccompanied children – along with everyone else – living in squalor.

A broader perspective

Spain, Greece and Italy should not be absolved of any blame regarding the treatment of people arriving on their territory, but neither can the EU cannot wash its hands of the matter. Aside from the fact that border controls and reception conditions are governed by EU law, other policies also play a role in generating the situation that force people to risk their lives to survive.

For example, last week the European Parliament backed a renewal of the fisheries agreement with Senegal, providing “opportunities” for generously-subsidised French, Spanish and Portuguese fleets to extract tens of thousands of tonnes of fish from Senegalese waters annually. In return, the Senegalese government will receive €1.7 million, while local fishermen will be deprived of the ability to work in their home country. An increase in large, well-equipped, European boats able to fish off the shores of Western Africa means less opportunities for the local population – who then need to seek other means of survival, even if it means risking their lives.

As Dyhia Belhabib, an analyst for the International Institute for Strategic Development, told Quartz Africa:

“It is a sign of frustration saying that why does our fish not need a visa and we do… You’re taking our fish away from our waters; you’re taking our livelihood away from our waters. I am entitled to go to Europe because you took everything away from me.”

A 2019 study conducted by the International Organization for Migration found that a significant proportion of Senegalese citizens leaving the country by sea to travel to the Canary Islands previously worked in fishing and agriculture. The EU is thus complicit in a vicious circle whereby the commercial agreements it signs take away jobs from the local population, who are forced to leave their countries and then encounter inhumane conditions upon arrival in the EU.

When it launched the new ‘Pact on Migration and Asylum’ the European Commission rightly noted that:

“Migration is a complex issue… The current system no longer works. And for the past five years, the EU has not been able to fix it. The EU must overcome the current stalemate and rise up to the task.”

The Commission’s ‘Vice-President for Promoting our European Way of Life’, Margaritis Schinas, commented: “The Pact provides the missing pieces of the puzzle for a comprehensive approach to migration.” Yet nowhere does the ‘Pact’ mention the negative effects of EU trade agreements or economic policy. A closer look at the disastrous history repeating itself on the Canary Islands, and some of the reasons underlying it, suggests that the EU’s approach is nowhere near comprehensive enough.

Yurema Pallarés Pla


[1] Cayuco is the name of the boat similar to a canoe; they were used to make the majority of journeys to the islands.

[2] The Spanish government is formed by a coalition between Partido Socialista Obrero Español (centre-left) and Unidas Podemos (left).

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