News, Jazz, NPR
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

In Canary Islands, Tensions Are High Over African Migration

General view of the Canarias 50 camp in La Isleta neighborhood, in the city of Las Palmas, in the island of Gran Canaria, Canary Islands.
General view of the Canarias 50 camp in La Isleta neighborhood, in the city of Las Palmas, in the island of Gran Canaria, Canary Islands.

LAS PALMAS DE GRAN CANARIA, Spain — In a sunlit courtyard, volunteers at a church soup kitchen are handing out lunch bags and cups of fruit juice.

Arcadina Dámaso, the coordinator, says demand has shot up.

"Until December, a maximum of 50 people would come here," she says. "Now, we're serving 75. Most of the new ones are Senegalese and Moroccan."

The Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago off the coast of Western Sahara, have seen a surge of African migration. Last year, 23,025 people arrived on boats — 8 1/2 times more than in 2019, according to United Nations refugee agency data.

Stricter controls across the Mediterranean have led more migrants to choose this longer, treacherous route to Europe. Nearly all who reach the islands want to end up in mainland Spain, to find jobs or join relatives, which is more than 1,000 miles away.

Citing COVID-19 restrictions, Spanish police are stopping migrants from leaving the Canaries for the mainland — even those with valid documents. Only the most vulnerable migrants and refugees have been officially transferred.

The bottleneck has angered some locals, while for migrants it's causing misery.

Younes Rida, 30, is getting a meal at the soup kitchen. After his work as a painter and mechanic dried up, he spent three days in an open boat from Agadir, Morocco, across the Atlantic, to Gran Canaria.

Through an interpreter, Rida says that he used his share of his family's land to pay his passage to the islands — 2,000 euros ($2,380). But the people smuggler tricked him, taking his money and leaving him stranded. He paid another 2,000 euros to come. He's desperate to get to mainland Spain, find work and send money home.

Younes Rida, from Morocco, eats a rice and plantain dish given to him at the church soup kitchen.
/ Andrés Gutiérrez for NPR
Younes Rida, from Morocco, eats a rice and plantain dish given to him at the church soup kitchen.

Rida wants to earn money for his mom's diabetes medicine. He says the family is poor and there's no future for him in Morocco. He's not alone. Moroccans make up one of the largest immigrant groups in Spain. And according to a recent survey by Arab Barometer, an independent research group, 70% of young citizens consider emigrating due to frustrations over a lack of economic opportunities.

As the Spanish government struggled to accommodate the surge of arrivals, hotels left empty because of the pandemic were used as temporary solution. Now it is opening six new migrant camps for 7,000 people on the islands.

Rida was living in one of them, but after demanding to go to the mainland he says he was kicked out. Now he's homeless, sleeping by the dock with a handful of friends.

A migrant prepares to sleep under a platform next to the dock in the port of Las Palmas on the island of Gran Canaria.
/ Andrés Gutiérrez for NPR
A migrant prepares to sleep under a platform next to the dock in the port of Las Palmas on the island of Gran Canaria.

Some Canarians are not happy that the islands have become a holding ground for migrants.

Aday Arbelo, an out-of-work welder from Gran Canaria, is also eating at the soup kitchen.

"We're all afraid!" he says. "Every day there's police around here, every day there are fights and robberies."

"It's awful. One day this is going to explode because there's no solution at all. The government promises and promises and nobody helps."

Arbelo has not had work for years. Unemployment in the Canary Islands is more than 25%, one of the highest rates in Spain.

Arbelo feels like the migrants are getting more help than him.

"They eat in the camp, breakfast lunch and dinner. And us? We're hungry. Hungry and ashamed, because it can't go on like this," he says.

Pockets of xenophobia have bubbled here since the crisis began. There have been anti-migrant marches and reports of organized groups attacking Moroccans.

Top: Some migrants have been provisionally hosted in local hotels and spend time sitting nearby in the resort of Puerto Rico, in Mogán, Gran Canaria. Left: General view of the empty marina in the Puerto Rico neighborhood. Right: A view of Playa de las Canteras, a famous area of the city of Las Palmas.
/ Andrés Gutiérrez for NPR
Top: Some migrants have been provisionally hosted in local hotels and spend time sitting nearby in the resort of Puerto Rico, in Mogán, Gran Canaria. Left: General view of the empty marina in the Puerto Rico neighborhood. Right: A view of Playa de las Canteras, a famous area of the city of Las Palmas.

Stephan Carlsen, who works at the Spanish Commission for Refugees, says most locals are more concerned about their own economic problems.

"People are not working now because there are no tourists here," he says. "And now when they see all these people arriving, they maybe get frustrated."

"The main problem is not the migrants arriving but the local authorities and the government," Carlsen adds, "the image they are giving in front of the Canarian people — they feel like they are abandoned."

But many Canarians support the migrants and are trying to help.

At a hostel, locals are chatting with a group of Senegalese men. The locals are part of a new solidarity group, Somos Red, which is offering food, clothes and legal advice to migrants.

Alexandra Christina Kouhiho, left, a volunteer Somos Red stands by as migrants prepare tea in the afternoon at a hostel the solidarity group has rented for some migrants to live in, after they were found living on the streets.
/ Andrés Gutiérrez for NPR
Alexandra Christina Kouhiho, left, a volunteer Somos Red stands by as migrants prepare tea in the afternoon at a hostel the solidarity group has rented for some migrants to live in, after they were found living on the streets.

Abdoulahi Diop is one of those receiving help. He spent 10 days on a boat with 117 others, crossing a thousand miles of open ocean to get here.

"Life in Senegal is very hard. There's no work or money," he says. "We're fishermen, and the government has sold the sea to foreign boats. To European boats!"

Top: Abdoulahi Diop, right, spent ten days on a boat with 117 others, crossing a thousand miles of open ocean to get here. Left: Three members of the Somos Red organization select and separate the clothes that will be given to the neediest migrants. Right: A migrant rests in the shadows next to a supermarket in the resort of Puerto Rico, in Mogán.
/ Andrés Gutiérrez for NPR
Top: Abdoulahi Diop, right, spent ten days on a boat with 117 others, crossing a thousand miles of open ocean to get here. Left: Three members of the Somos Red organization select and separate the clothes that will be given to the neediest migrants. Right: A migrant rests in the shadows next to a supermarket in the resort of Puerto Rico, in Mogán.

Somos Red was formed after one member found Diop and others sleeping on the streets. The solidarity group fundraised and rented this hostel for the men to live in.

"We've been welcomed here. If they hadn't come to help us, we'd still be on the streets," says Diop.

Cristina Taisma Calderín, a 19-year-old student from Las Palmas, has come to offer food and friendship.

"This country is not only for us, they are people!" she says. "They have the right to live well in good conditions. And if other people come, let them come."

Spain's Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska has said that the government wants to minimize transfers to the mainland in order to "prevent irregular entry routes into Europe."

The center-left government's junior coalition partner, the leftist United We Can party, demanded migrants urgently be allowed to travel, condemning what it considers the "repeated infringement of human rights" in the Canaries. They say the situation is beginning to resemble that of the Greek island of Lesbos, where refugees are stranded, locals are fed up and tensions have mounted in crowded camps.

A spokesperson from Spain's Interior Ministry told NPR that all undocumented migrants without international protection under asylum law face deportation. After the pandemic halted repatriation flights for months, deportations to Morocco, Senegal and Mauritania are now underway.

Diop has applied for asylum. He says he faced arrest in Senegal for his involvement in a protest over fishing rights, during which he claims his boat was burned by police.

He hopes to join his older brother in Seville.

"If I stay here, it will be hard," he says. "I've got no family here, nor any work."

Meanwhile Rida is desperate not to be sent back to Morocco.

At the dock where he sleeps with his friends, the group show videos of their boat journey, faces laughing and hopeful as it skims across the sea.

If he gets deported, Rida says he'll try again to come to Spain.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A man enjoys the sun on the small pier at Las Canteras beach in Las Palmas.
/ Andrés Gutiérrez for NPR
A man enjoys the sun on the small pier at Las Canteras beach in Las Palmas.

WUSF 89.7 depends on donors for the funding it takes to provide you the most trusted source of news and information here in town, across our state, and around the world. Support WUSF now by giving monthly, or make a one-time donation online.