By Chiara Fabbro
Perhaps counter-intuitively, there is a way to reach Europe from Africa through the Atlantic Ocean. In fact, many people on the move make a perilous sea journey from West Africa to the Canary Islands, a Spanish territory off the coast of Morocco and Western Sahara, in search of safety and a dignified life. This route has existed since the ‘90s, with the first reported arrival in 1994. After the first known tragedy happened in 1999, when a boat departed from Southern Morocco sank near the coast of Fuerteventura, many more followed and thousands of lives were lost.
In 2006 the islands saw a big spike in arrivals, which became known as the “cayucos crisis”, with over 30 thousand people reaching their shores, more than half of which from Senegal. In order to understand why so many people were all of a sudden choosing this route, two aspects need to be considered. On the one hand, political instability in certain countries has been fuelling this development, alongside low economic development and, notably, the industrial overfishing in the Atlantic.
The latter, beside the environmental aspect, has heavily impacted people’s livelihoods, with many relying on artisanal fishing and related commercial activities, while at the same time it has left an unused fleet of fishing boats (cayucos). On the other hand, this spike has been associated with the increased efforts for the suppression of arrivals through the Western Mediterranean routes, across the Strait of Gibraltar and the land borders with the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, in northern Morocco.
This route is extremely dangerous because it entails a very long journey in small boats with small engines, not apt to face the ocean. Shipwrecks are not uncommon. People face days or even weeks at sea. Problems can affect the engine, while navigation is difficult and people often report running out of fuel or food and water supplies. In the majority of cases dehydration, made worse by sea sickness, and hypothermia are the main factors as to why some people don’t survive this journey.
Once more in 2020, especially during its final few months, we witnessed a significant surge in arrivals to the Canary Islands, with 23,000 people reaching the islands during the year, more than eight times the number for the previous year. People come mostly from Morocco, Western Sahara, Mali, Senegal and Mauritania. It is however not uncommon to meet people from Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Guinea-Conakry.
Once again the reasons for their journeys via this route are likely two-faceted. Firstly, the pandemic took its financial toll in Africa like everywhere else, and thus more people made the difficult choice to leave their homes. Secondly, the closure of the land border with Morocco due to Covid-19 restrictions, along with the tightening of border control measures both via land and sea on the Western Mediterranean routes, meant that people became increasingly more likely to choose the dangerous journey on the Atlantic instead.
During the first half of 2021, alarmingly we have witnessed a similar trend. The consequential cause of concern is of course the lives lost along the way, with the latest tragedies reported in Lanzarote on the 17th of June 2021, where at least four people lost their lives, including a child and a pregnant woman, and in Gran Canaria, with the arrival of a boat with 23 survivors and one victim on the 24th of June 2021.  
People are setting off from different locations along the African coast, starting from the Moroccan or Western Saharan coasts, but increasingly from Mauritania, Senegal or even Gambia. This means sailing a distance of up to 2,000 km, making the aforementioned risks even greater. Moreover, the area being so wide hinders the efficacy of Search and Rescue (SAR) operations.
Overall, 849 lost lives have been recorded by IOM’s Missing Migrants project over the course of the year 2020. However, these are just the confirmed cases. The Spanish NGO Caminando Fronteras, which receives the reports of missing boats from the families of the people on the move, put this number at 1851, including many who were never found.
In fact, while some boats do arrive directly to the Canary Islands, most often they are found at sea by commercial or fishing vessels, or SAR aircrafts looking for boats signalled as missing by the families of those making the journey. This can happen from a few miles off the coast to as far as hundreds of miles away. A Salvamento Maritimo vessel would then reach the boat in distress and assist its passengers.
As arrivals increased significantly over the course of 2020, the situation started to become more problematic. While the numbers would be manageable with a country-wide or European effort, they were problematic for these small Atlantic islands. The result was what became infamously known as “the pier of shame”.
A tent camp was built to host people directly on the pier where rescue operations arrive, in the south of Gran Canaria, for over three months.  Afterwards, many hotels left empty by the pandemic have been used as a temporary solution, thus also providing some financial relief to the tourism industry that was hit very hard. However, the solution wasn’t seen favourably by everybody.
Finally, the so-called “Plan Canarias” was implemented, and people transferred to camps and centres (for families and the most vulnerable), with varied living conditions, during February and March 2021. The plan involved keeping many people on the islands, with the intention to arrange deportations whenever possible. At this stage, the entirely inadequate conditions of certain camps, along with the fear of being deported, meant that hundreds of people slipped out of the system and started living in improvised shelters.
Transfer to the reception centres in mainland Spain has happened very slowly, and at first only for nationals of the countries with a higher chance of an asylum application being approved, such as Mali. On the other hand, spontaneous travel to mainland Spain, thus within the national territory, was hindered as much as possible.
People attempting to board flights or ferries were often blocked even in the absence of a legal reason to do so. This happened until a judgement in mid-April declared the right to free circulation within the national territory for those with an asylum application or a passport. This meant that in the past couple of months those who could afford it and, in most cases, had family or friends waiting for them in Europe, started leaving.
One of the biggest issues during the past year has been people feeling stuck. Many reported receiving no clear guidance on their rights and asylum procedures and all legal processes have been extremely prolonged. The uncertainty on the possibility of leaving the islands had a big toll on people’s mental health.
In sum, the humanitarian situation on the Canary Islands is partly a result of Europe’s strong focus on stemming arrivals via the Central and Western Mediterranean routes whilst failing to provide adequate alternatives. This is contributing to pushing people into increasingly dangerous routes and leaves many of them trapped in limbo, whilst some perish on the Atlantic. A more humane way forward is necessary.
The views, information, or opinions expressed in the blog post are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Refugee Rights Europe and its employees. Refugee Rights Europe invites a spectrum of viewpoints to feature on its blog in order to highlight different aspects of the human rights crisis facing refugees and displaced people in Europe, with the hope of generating discussion conducive to constructive solutions.