LAS PALMAS DE GRAN CANARIA – In October alone, authorities recorded more than 7,500 arrivals of undocumented migrants in the Canary Islands. The majority come from Senegal, where there is political unrest and many people live below the poverty line.
Until this Sunday, more than 23,000 arrivals have already been counted this year. Of these, approximately 80% came in the past 3.5 months. The small island of El Hierro with a population of just over 11,000 people received more than 6,000 of those 7,500 migrants. It appears to be an exodus that shows no signs of abating. The migrants mainly come from Senegal, but a small part also come from Mauritania and Gambia. In recent weeks, the number of Moroccans from Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara has also increased.
Profile of the migrants
According to official figures, 19,490 migrants had been registered as of last week, including almost 18,100 men and more than 1,300 women. Among them were 3,659 minors, of which about 50 are still babies. The majority of children are between 12 and 17 years old. Although there is no detailed data on their nationalities, Senegalese are the largest group to have arrived in recent months.
Mbaye Fall, a 17-year-old Senegalese boy, shared in the newspaper El País his dream of coming to Europe to work and support his family. For years he collected all the money he could and hid it in his house without his parents noticing. Ultimately, he had to sell his motorcycle to pay for the €600 crossing. After a week without sleep and much fear at sea, he now lives in an adult shelter in Tenerife, despite claiming to be a minor.
The sharp increase in the number of migrants in the Canary Islands is partly the result of political unrest in the previously stable democracy of Senegal: Violent protests have broken out following the imprisonment of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, who is seen by many Senegalese youth as a symbol of hope. These protests were met with repression by the security forces.
Crisis in the fishing sector
On the other hand, many people are in great despair about their economic situation. For example, Maguette Cisse, a 25-year-old Senegalese fisherman, says that the fishing sector on which more than 600,000 people depend is in crisis. “I was one of the people who supported [Ousmane] Sonko, and since he has been in prison we have only had problems,” he says. For months he did not make it to the end of the month with his income and he increasingly came home from sea with empty nets. He borrowed €800 from his mother to pay for the crossing. That includes bribing the police who watched them leave from a beach in Rufisque, just 30 kilometres from Dakar.
On August 22, the family of Ndiaga Suare, another 27-year-old fisherman, arrived on the island of El Hierro. He left Senegal with his wife Ndeye, 21, and his daughter Penda, aged one year and eight months. They bought powdered milk for their daughter and got into a canoe not knowing where it would end up. The fisherman did not want to go into details, but explained that what he did was an escape from his own family. “We had a lot of problems. I even moved to another city, but my brothers found me,” he says.
The man is despondent, he has been in a camp for adult men for two months, separated from his wife and daughter. “It is very difficult. I can barely see them, there are a lot of people here and the food is not good. There are days when I prefer not to eat,” he explains. The separation from his wife and child frustrates him. “Since I arrived here I have been blocked, I can’t think about the next steps.”
Many of these migrants had hope of a better future but are now confronted with the harsh reality of overcrowded asylum centres and limited resources. The intense arrival of boats to the Canary Islands in recent months and especially the past two weeks has pushed the peninsula’s reception options to their limits.
Shelter occupancy rates
Early this week, occupancy rates in reception centres in mainland Spain stood at around 80% of the nearly 4,500 available beds, according to sources familiar with the state system. Meanwhile, that of the islands, where around 3,700 migrants are housed, is already at 90%. The government continues to transfer migrants from the islands to the mainland, sometimes within just a few days. However, because so many migrants are arriving now the transfer is in danger of becoming blocked. Especially since October and November (together with September) are historically the months with the most arrivals due to a generally calm sea.