Canary Islands migrant pressure continues, living conditions 'shameful'

A quarantine centre on the island of Fuerteventura in the Spanish archipelago of the Canaries; a demonstration in front of the El Matorral camp, also on Fuerteventura. Photos taken between March and April, and sent to FRANCE 24 Observers in mid-April.
A quarantine centre on the island of Fuerteventura in the Spanish archipelago of the Canaries; a demonstration in front of the El Matorral camp, also on Fuerteventura. Photos taken between March and April, and sent to FRANCE 24 Observers in mid-April. © DR

In 2020, an unprecedented 23,000 migrants made the seaborne journey from northwestern Africa to the Canary Islands. However, in recent months, the Spanish archipelago has become a dead end, with migrants finding themselves stuck in overcrowded centres in which uncertainty and lack of support have generated tensions. In mid-April, several migrants contacted our editorial staff to testify.

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In response to amounts of migrant arrivals unseen since 2006, the Spanish government introduced its ‘Canary Plan’ in November 2020 with the objective of creating 7,000 migrant shelters on the islands of Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura and Tenerife.

However, according to a report by Amnesty International Spain published on April 23 2021, the living conditions on the archipelago remain worrying and even “shameful” in some centres. 

'I have applied for asylum but I still have no news about the outcome'

Ahmed (not his real name) is a Guinean asylum seeker who arrived in the Canary Islands on 16 October 2020. He spent several months in a hotel before being transferred to the El Matorral camp on the island of Fuerteventura in February. The centre, which can hold up to 648 people, was opened as part of the ‘Canary Plan’ by the Red Cross. 

Photo prise dans le campement d'El Matorral. Envoyée à la rédaction des Observateurs de France 24 en avril.
Photo prise dans le campement d'El Matorral. Envoyée à la rédaction des Observateurs de France 24 en avril. © DR

Ahmed sent us some photos from inside the camp in mid-April.

We are crammed inside our tents. At night, it's cold. To eat, we have to queue for almost an hour to get a tiny portion of food. We have tried to get information by asking questions like, ‘When are we going to get out of here?’ and ‘Why have some people already left?’. I have applied for asylum, but I have no news about my case. There have already been clashes between sub-Saharans and Moroccans because of the queues for food. On March 15, about 30 of us organised a march to ask for help and to leave this camp.

On social networks, several organisations and groups, under the umbrella of the Fuerteventura Migrant Aid Network, have documented the situation in this camp. Javier, who is a member of this network, explained the problems migrants face:

There is a lack of health and psychological care, as well as a lack of legal assistance. There is sometimes only one person in charge of the legal follow-up of 500 people in the Matorral camp.

Meanwhile, in local media, the Red Cross has claimed it has set up "Spanish courses, legal assistance and psychological assistance". The organisation has insisted that the conditions in the El Matorral camp are dignified "if it’s only for a limited stay".

'La Nave del Queso': a criticised quarantine centre

On March 31, a Covid-19 case was detected in Matorral camp. In order to quarantine, 100 people were transferred to another centre called La Nave del Queso in Puerto del Rosario, the capital of the island of Fuerteventura.

Dans la "Nave del Queso", sur l'île de Fuerteventura aux Canaries, en avril 2020.
Dans la "Nave del Queso", sur l'île de Fuerteventura aux Canaries, en avril 2020. © DR

Ahmed was part of this group of people who were transferred. In this shed, several spaces have been divided by sheets and fences. The migrants sleep on bunk beds, sometimes very close to the toilets and showers of the building site. "It's worse than in Matorral: we don't eat well, and there's not enough water. I don't know how long we're going to stay here," said Ahmed.

Another Guinean asylum seeker, Issa (not her real name), who arrived in the Canary Islands in September 2020 to then be transferred to the Nave del Queso, added:

There are more than 200 of us. I've already taken two PCR tests but they take people out in pairs or in groups of three. I'm on the verge of suicide.

The Nave del Queso centre has also been criticised by Amnesty International Spain, which has condemned it as a place that does not meet "minimum sanitary conditions", where men, women and children have been "deprived of their freedom", in some cases for almost a month.

On April 12, a police intervention took place in this quarantine centre after a group of migrants demanded to be released. Seven Senegalese people were arrested. On April 24, after much criticism, the authorities announced the "progressive closure" of the Nave del Queso and released 21 women and four minors. 

'Some people are self-harming'

Violent scenes have also taken place in other centres in the archipelago, such as on April 5 in the "macro-camp" of Las Raices, that houses almost 1,500 people on the island of Tenerife. Eight people were taken into custody. Images released by the Tenerife Migrant Aid Assembly showed blood trails on the stairs leading to the centre's medical centre.

According to Roberto Mesa, a spokesperson for the assembly, the violence could be avoided:

In the Las Raices camp, nearly 30 people of different nationalities are in the same tent. There can be misunderstandings. When migrants ask for help, they are told "tomorrow, tomorrow". The policy is unpredictable: some have been able to leave for mainland Spain by buying a ticket themselves, others have applied for asylum and hold a passport but are still without a solution [since April 14 , a court decision allows migrants holding a passport or an application for international protection to travel to the mainland on their own, but according to NGOs, the implementation of this decision is very unpredictable and some migrants do not have the means to buy a ticket – editor's note.] Some leave shortly after arriving, others do not. All this generates a lot of frustration. We have seen young people change psychologically, some of them self-harm. If there were more translators, doctors, lawyers and psychologists, we could avoid some of the tensions.

Since the beginning of the migration crisis, NGOs have warned that the Canary Islands are becoming a "prison" for migrants. 

According to the Canary Islands government, this is not the case. In mid-April, the government delegate of the Canary Islands said that many migrants who had reached the archipelago were being transferred to other regions, sent back to their countries of origin or left to their own devices. The amount of migrants in each case has not been communicated, but only 5,000 remain in the structures set up by the Ministry of Migration. Almost 2,000 minors are also on the archipelago and are under the responsibility of the Canary Islands government. 

However, according to various organisations that we contacted, the number of migrants stranded on the archipelago could be a lot higher, especially because informal camps have formed on the islands of Gran Canaria, Tenerife and Fuerteventura. Many homeless people have fled the reception centres, either because of the poor conditions inside the camps or because they fear deportation.

In 2021, people continue to arrive in the Canary Islands, but at a lower rate. From January to mid-April, 3,980 migrants reached the shores of this Spanish archipelago.