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Since 2019, hundreds of migrants have perished in their attempts to reach the Canary Islands using the perilous Atlantic route

The death of 18 migrants – and the rescue of more than 300 more – trying to make the crossing from Africa to the Canary Islands in January highlighted the recent resurgence of the dangerous Atlantic route to Europe.

The Canary Islands off north-west Africa, which are Spanish but over 1,000km away from mainland Spain, have become the latest migration hotspot. The numbers of migrants using the route – where one person drowns for every 24 that make it – began rising again in November 2021, according to El País.

Human traffickers have been using this new route to sneak migrants into Europe since 2019, because of increased efforts by European countries to block passage across the Mediterranean. According to the Missing Migrants Project, more than 1,170 migrants were lost at sea trying to reach the Canaries in 2021, including at least 93 children; this is a much higher number of deaths than in 2020 when 877 migrants were lost.

Last year, approximately 22,000 migrants made the Canaries their home, according to government statistics. The Spanish government has so far refused to accept the majority who have arrived on the islands, prompting human rights organisations to label the territory an open-air prison, because thousands have been left stranded for months in makeshift camps. 

Why is the Atlantic route more dangerous?

Since 2019, the number of migrants arriving by boat in the Canary Islands has surged sevenfold – primarily from West African countries such as Senegal, Mauritius, Gambia and Morocco. More than 23,000 migrants successfully made the journey in the Canaries in 2020, and more than 19,000 in 2021.

There are reports of people dying as they try to reach the Spanish islands almost every week. The route, far longer from most African countries than the commonly used Mediterranean ones, presents many more difficulties. The majority of people attempt the crossing in rickety wooden dugouts that aren't designed for open water, or navigating powerful ocean currents.

In its closest point on the Moroccan coast, the Canary Islands are separated from the African continent by more than 100km. But though the Moroccan crossing presents many hazards, the risks involved are far less than voyages from Senegal, Mauritania or the Gambia. Saint Louis, the northernmost port of Senegal, is approximately 1,400km away for example; migrants can sometimes spend two weeks in the open ocean in their quest to reach the islands. 

Because of the lengthy trip, ships leaving from West African countries are substantially more congested, since human smugglers try to take as many people as possible abroad in order to make more money. These long journeys increase the risks, especially during seasons when the weather is rougher.

Why are more people using this route?

Primarily due to increased security in the Mediterranean region from Morocco, which with EU support has blocked the route to Spain through the north. With the country mounting increased coastguard patrols, a greater number of people have been intercepted along the western Mediterranean route in recent years.  

In the past, when one route from Africa to Europe was blocked, another was used: when Libya slid into turmoil, for example, people smugglers attempted to cross the Mediterranean from northern Morocco. Now as a result of Europe providing modern equipment and millions of dollars in funding to African countries such as Morocco, Libya and Tunisia to cut down on the flow of migrants, the Mediterranean as a whole has become less viable. The smugglers have decided the best way to move them is through West Africa and then the Canary Islands. 

Moreover, middle men are not always involved. Sometimes, rather than paying smugglers, those who are desperate enough take a chance and try to reach that location, no matter how tough it may be. The economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has Africa has exacerbated the continent’s longstanding issues of a lack of economic opportunities, civil wars and government repression – and increased people’s willingness to take risks in search of a new life. Direct passage across to the ocean to the Canary Islands may seem less daunting than the long slog across the Sahara. 

What is the impact on the Canaries?

Many locals are resentful about the influx because they are already suffering from the economic effects of the pandemic. The island's economy is based on tourism, which accounts for 35% of its GDP, but the number of tourists has drastically declined.

In 2020, many migrants were placed in vacant hotels, but they have now been relocated to temporary camps where they await their fate. Some residents have expressed their displeasure with the uninvited visitors, alleging that many leave the camps and are living on the streets, because they are afraid of being repatriated. There have been anti-migrant marches and reports of vigilante groups attacking newcomers in the islands’ capital Las Palmas, which illustrate the rising tensions.

Locals are urging that the Spanish government and the EU take stronger measures to address the situation. Even locals who try to help migrants by providing food or other necessities are also asking the authorities to better organise migration infrastructure to prevent things from deteriorating further.

How can the Canaries improve the migration situation?

The EU has struggled to deal with the broader migrant crisis since 2015. The European Parliament has put forward various suggestions to create an obligatory relocation quota, but it has been vigorously opposed by the counties like Poland and Hungary, who do not want to be part of this process. 

With regards to the Atlantic route, Spanish authorities are putting more petrol boats in place and extending ties with African countries like Senegal and Mauritius; both to deport migrants back to their home countries, and to deploy Spanish police to work with local authorities to discourage people from making the crossing in the first place.

After the Spanish government initially denied Canary migrants the right to move to the mainland, a court decision last year overturned that policy for limited numbers. There are now regular transfers to mainland Spain to minimise overcrowding, the local government has implemented better health protocols to manage arrivals and mitigate the threat of Covid-19, and the economy has begun to recover – all of which have improved the situation for the islands’ asylum-seekers.

However, unless solutions are found to the question of broader migrant flows, the Canary Islands will continue to be a focal point for Europe's migrant crisis.

Written By: Olivium Staff.


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