From Morocco it is the closest to Fuerteventura. A stopover on the way to paradise.

The tourists shouldn’t see immigrants: they should associate the Canary Islands with everything that is nice and pleasant. If it was otherwise, they might refuse to come. One catastrophe, linked to the Covid-19 pandemic was enough. Illegal immigrants seemed interesting and new to us at first. But we’ve had enough of them – says Felipe, a student at one of Gran Canaria universities.

The last stop of many bus lines at the north edge of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria is “Puerto” – harbor, port. The tourists arrive here to visit the old castle Castillo de la Luz but they don’t advance further. For there are docks there, full of workshops and warehouses of dubious beauty. Among them – an area surrounded by an old thick wall with a faded inscription “Zona Militar” – “Military zone”, barracks. Canopies of the huge white tents of one of the refugee centers in the Canary Islands are showing from above the wall.

During the high season chartered planes full of tourists land at the airports of Gran Canaria, Tenerife, Lanzarote and Fuerteventura. These people then disperse to resorts to take advantage of the beautiful mild weather and the wonderfully warm sea. Meanwhile, illegal immigrants from Africa are trying to reach the shores of the islands. They sail in small, flimsy boats from a seemingly undistant continent.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE – We’ve had two cases this week: 400 people arrived on Wednesday and 150 on Thursday – says Francisco Suarez Alamo, director of Informaciones Canarias SA, which publishes the newspaper “Canarias7”. Much of the docks and barracks with huge white tents inside can be seen from the windows of the local daily’s offices. – There aren’t many people here now but in the past those tents used to be full to bursting – he recounts.

Phantom boats

The AP agency has recently described a dramatic story from two years ago. In the Caribbean, on the shore of Tobago, an empty boat was found with the bodies of a dozen black men inside. It turned out that the boat had left Mauritania with 43 people on board, and the destination was the Canary Islands. Unfortunately; instead of reaching its destination, it wandered for two months, reaching the other end of the Atlantic Ocean. The authors described what could happen along the way: despair, fear, hunger, dehydration, hypothermia...

In 2021 alone, seven “phantom boats” appeared in the Caribbean and off the coast of Brazil, whose original destination was certainly the Canary Islands. How many didn’t arrive at all?... “Canarias7”, commenting on this story, emphasized that the conditions in the Atlantic are extremely difficult, and the inhabitants of Africa board poor-quality, inflatable pontoons with outboard motors, taking very little food and water. They are exposed to the risk of engine failure or wrong course.

According to the non-governmental organization Caminando Fronteras, 4,000 people died along the so-called migration route to the Canary Islands in the year 2021 alone.
It is disturbingly close from the Canary Islands to Africa. Infographic: Anna Tybel-Chmielewska/TVP
Because from Morocco it is the closest to Fuerteventura – only about 90 kilometers. But the boat described by the AP left Nouadhibou (Mauretania), about a thousand kilometers to the southwest. This means that it took more than four days to sail to the Canary Islands. Only the unlucky boat went northwest instead of northeast. In May 2021, it was spotted near Tobago. The AP quoted local fisherman Lance Biggart who saw a dead man in the bow.

The boat was towed to shore, pulled out by a tractor. Fourteen bodies were found, partly sun-dried and partly rotten. Clothing, a thousand CFA francs (the currency of the former French colonies in Africa, the equivalent of 7 zlotys) and a few euros, as well as several mobile phones with SIM cards from Mali and Mauritania were also found. Police in Trinidad and Tobago handed over the card numbers to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which attempted to contact the Mauritanian government. They never got an answer.

By 2023, some details were established, PBS News wrote about it. AP journalists called the phone numbers written on the SIM cards found on the boat. It turned out that a boat with young men from Mauritania, Mali and Senegal had left Nouadhibou. Journalists reached out to their families, who had no idea what had happened to their loved ones…

Looking for a trail

In 2023, illegal immigration to the Canary Islands somewhat decreased. In January 2022, 3,194 immigrants arrived there. During the same period in 2023, “only” 566 people arrived. However, it is difficult to say whether this trend will continue. The previous years showed something completely different. While in 2019 about 2,700 people arrived there, in 2020 – 23,000, in 2021 – 22,000, and in 2022 – 16,000.

– We have a huge logistical problem – says Francisco Suarez Alamo. – What to do with these people? Few come from Morocco, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, from former French colonies. They have families and friends in France and want to get there, and our islands are supposed to be just a “hop” before the destination. But they need to be accommodated, fed on… – he adds.

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Particularly many immigrants come from Mali, a country in which civil war is raging. In 2020 there was a coup d’état there, in 2021 another one. The new authorities, headed by the interim president, Colonel Assimi Goita, broke off cooperation with France and established close contacts with Russia. Mercenaries from the Russian Wagner group came to the country; in March 2022, Wagnerians reportedly murdered 300 civilians. In February this year, the head of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Sergey Lavrov, visited the Malian capital of Bamako. Mali was one of seven countries voting at the UN against the resolution on the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine.

The minimum wage in Mali is 40,000 CFA francs, i.e. 163 zlotys; 200,000 (818 zlotys!) is considered a good salary. Refugees have to go through Mauritania to reach the sea. In Mauritania, they board boats and try to reach Europe. And the closest part of the European Union to them is the Canary Islands.

But there are other ways. Three stowaways were found on the Maltese-flagged tanker “Alithini II” some time ago. They were hiding above the bottom of the ship, just behind the helm. In Las Palmas, they were hospitalized because they showed signs of dehydration and hypothermia. The ship departed from Lagos, Nigeria, and sailed 2,800 nautical miles. There have been several similar cases in recent years. In 2020, a 14-year-old Nigerian told the Spanish newspaper El País about a two-week trip from Lagos, spent in a cramped room at the helm of a ship.

Refugees who have managed to reach one of the Canary islands try to reach the port – whether in Las Palmas or Santa Cruz de Tenerife – to board a ship bound for the mainland. Some try to break into trucks or containers that are to be loaded onto one of the ships. If they fail, they spend the night in nearby dumpsters, ready for another attempt the next day. When they are caught by the police, they end up in one of the camps. But they try to avoid it at all costs.

– Illegal immigrants seemed interesting and new to us at first. But we’ve had enough of them – says Felipe, a student at one of Gran Canaria universities. It is hardly surprising: near the ports and centers for illegal immigrants, there has been unrest, drug dealers have appeared, there are fights.

Attempts to help refugees do not bring results, because the Canary Islands are a special place. 70 percent of the local economy is related to tourism; any other activity is properly regarded as a side activity. Wine is produced on the islands, and – mainly in the strait between the islands and the mainland – squid and octopus are caught, mainly for export.

It is therefore hardly surprising that the main project of the Spanish Commission for the Assistance of Refugees in the Canadian Islands is a project aimed at teaching illegal immigrants the profession of a cook. They are also to learn Spanish and, among others, computer operation. Cost: over one hundred thousand euros, coming from European funds. Too little? Well, but the number of people who have been granted such assistance is negligible: only fifteen newcomers from the nearby, war-torn continent received it...
People from Africa can be seen on the streets of larger Canarian cities. There may not be many of them, but they are visible even on the seaside promenades, where they try to sell sheets of colorful fabric, resembling large scarves and used to spread on the beach, and carry armloads of fake branded watches.

Repair, not resolution

There are also refugees from Ukraine in the Canary Islands, but for obvious reasons there are very few of them. According to the local TV Canaria, their number is estimated at around 4,000. (i.e. as if there were 80,000 of them in Poland). The head of the local Ukrainian organization, Olesya Lylak, said in connection with the anniversary of the Russian aggression that her compatriots were received very hospitably, and the society on the islands “did their best”.

But it’s not the Ukrainians who are the problem. In a commentary for the “Canarias7” newspaper, Silvia Fernández wrote that thirty years had passed since the arrival of the first boat carrying illegal immigrants from Africa to the Islands. And she emphasized that what the authorities are doing – be it local, Spanish or European – is only “repairing” gigantic problems. “A long-term strategy is needed, specifying what and how to do so that migration takes place in an orderly manner, and at the same time that there are some reasonable limits of incoming migrants” – she emphasized.

Francisco Suarez Alamo says exactly the same thing. – Yes, we help the Ukrainians, we should be happy about it. People come to the European Union, including us, from a country at war. But there are also wars elsewhere, such as the one in Mali. But no one notices that, he says. And from the point of view of the inhabitants of the Canary Islands, Ukraine is very far away (over 5,000 kilometers!), and Mali is much closer.

It is worth noting that the most legal migrants – from Latin America – also arrive on the islands. This is a completely opposite trend than that from a hundred or more years ago. In the past, it was the inhabitants of the Canary Islands who went to Cuba or Venezuela, looking for work in the sugar or tobacco industry. Migration to Cuba finally ended in 1959 with the seizure of power by Fidel Castro. The coming to power of the communists and the nationalization of the economy meant that many descendants of newcomers from the islands hurriedly returned to the Canary Islands. Venezuela in the middle of the 20th century offered opportunities to earn money due to the development of the oil industry. About 100,000 people left the Canary Islands. people. But since the 1990s, the trend has completely reversed.

All this is not noticed by tourists resting on the beaches. Because they shouldn’t notice: Islands are supposed to be associated with everything that is nice and pleasant. Otherwise, they might not want to come here – One catastrophe, linked to the Covid-19 pandemic was enough. Without the help of the Spanish state, the Canarian economy would simply go bankrupt. For refugees from Africa, Islas Canarias are not a destination either; they are supposed to be just a short stopover on the way to the paradise that is continental Europe.

– Piotr Kościński
– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

Main photo: The Canary Islands, a paradise for tourists: beautiful, mild weather and a wonderfully warm sea. Photo: Piotr Kościński
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