The burnt-down Moria camp, boats full of migrants picked up in the Mediterranean or people crossing the river Evros between Greece and Turkey: These are the familiar images that dominate reporting on migration. But 4,000 kilometres from camps on the Greek island Lesbos, a new humanitarian catastrophe is brewing.
Since the start of 2020, almost 14,000 migrants have reached the Canary Islands, which belong to Spain and are located just off Africa’s western coast. According to the Spanish Interior Ministry, these figures are seven times higher than they were last year.
Local leader Roman Rodriguez has warned that the Canary Islands should not become Spain’s Lampedusa – referring to the Italian island between Sicily and the Tunisian coast that’s the first stop for many trying to reach Europe. The Canary Islands are much larger than Lampedusa, with 2.15 million inhabitants compared to the 4,500 people living there, but the number of migrants arriving is similarly high. The southern Italian Island has seen 16,000 arrivals since January.
The crossing from Africa to the Canaries is incredibly dangerous.
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), at least 414 people died in 2020 while attempting the crossing – double the number from the previous year.
People come from Morocco, Senegal, Gambia, Mauritania, Guinea-Bissau or even Guinea, a distant 2,400 kilometres away. Most cross in wooden boats with a small motor that cannot withstand the stormy Atlantic.
“You can die anytime,” says Papa Diop Sarr, a fisher in Senegal, who after a failed attempt is planning a second crossing.
Leaving his family behind is a motivation for fighting for a better life in Europe. “But we go without knowing what opportunities or difficulties we will find,” he says.
The tragedy might be far bigger than numbers indicate, as there is no official data on how many people attempt the crossing – or how many fail. “With a very low success rate, few manage to reach the Canary Islands,” the IOM writes in a report on migration to the Canaries.
“The risk of dying is one concern,” says Nassima Clerin, an expert at the IOM in Senegal. “But there is also concern and fear about what happens to the people who make it and arrive.”
Technically, migrants should be registered within 72 hours and receive a coronavirus test, but authorities are overburdened, and resentment is spreading among the local population.
There are demonstrations against an alleged “invasion,” and some complain the authorities do more for migrants than for local inhabitants affected by the pandemic.
But what is driving an increasing number of people to risk this dangerous and uncertain journey?
Experts believe it has to do with the shift of migration routes, also due to border closures imposed to contain the coronavirus.
All states in the Sahel had initially closed their borders due to the pandemic, says Matt Herbert of the Institute for Security Studies.
Especially in Algeria, closures lasted very long, disrupting the route from Niger or Mali to Algeria. Authorities in Morocco meanwhile have cooperated more with EU officials to crack down on illegal migration, says Bram Frouws of the Mixed Migration Centre.
The pandemic has made travelling for many migrants more difficult, but it has also increased many people’s suffering – making the necessity to migrate more urgent, as many are left out of work due to the virus.
The African Development Bank in July 2020 estimated that 25 million Africans could lose their jobs this year. For instance in Senegal, which depends on tourism, the World Bank said that growth may decline from 5.3 per cent in 2019 to 1.3 per cent in 2020.
Gala Sow is one of many people from Africa who suffered under the economic impact of the pandemic, Spanish daily El Pais reported. The Senegalese man had a small shop where he sells bracelets, necklaces, shoes and clothes, and also leads djembe percussion workshops.
While he made some 5,300 dollars in previous tourist seasons, he lost everything from one day to the next as Senegal imposed a lockdown and tourists stopped coming. Sow was unable to support his mother and siblings anymore, so he sold a piece of land and boarded a ship to the Canaries, together with his younger brother and 66 other people.
“Everyone who works in tourism, in hotels, tour guides or merchants have lost their basis of existence,” Sow tells El Pais after he arrived in Tenerife.
If he is lucky, he will be allowed to stay and even travel to mainland Spain. If not, he might end up on a deportation flight to Mauritania.
Most migrants who reach the Canaries hope to continue to mainland Spain or even another European country, Clerin says. But due to the coronavirus, it is difficult, and many have to stay on the Canary Islands. “They are basically stranded.”