How Spain handled the mass migration challenge

Spain’s Canary Islands were a magnet for migrants fleeing Africa about a decade before thousands began making the perilous voyage across the Mediterranean to Italy.

CANARY ISLANDS: Almost a decade before the deaths of 360 migrants in a shipwreck off the Italian island of Lampedusa shook a collective conscience about mass migration, the Canary Islands faced a similar challenge.

Barely 100km (62.1 miles) from the coast of Africa, Spain’s Canary Islands have been dealing with irregular migration for 23 years, ever since the first “patera” (small boat) with two Sahrawi youths on board arrived on the island of Fuerteventura in 1994.

That was just a taste of what was to come – initially, a few arrived each year, then dozens, hundreds, and soon thousands.

The first pateras established a route to the Canaries that over the next 11 years was used by 41,829 people, most of them Maghrebis from Northwest Africa who crossed the North Atlantic Ocean to the islands of Lanzarote, Fuerteventura and Gran Canaria.

At the end of 2005, the first “cayuco,” a fishing boat common in Senegal and Mauritania for longer sailing trips, with up to 100 people on board was intercepted, and everything changed.

A year later, 31,678 people arrived in the Canaries in 515 pateras or cayucos; numbers never before seen in the archipelago of two million residents: seven times the arrivals recorded in 2005 (4,715), and four times the number of migrants who crossed the Strait of Gibraltar (around 7,500) to reach mainland Spain that year.

Factors such as the reinforcement of borders in the autonomous Spanish cities of Ceuta and Melilla on Africa’s north coast, conflicts in several countries and the collapse of fisheries that served as a livelihood for many African communities, led to the Canaries becoming a preferred route to the new “El Dorado” – a prosperous Spain with a high demand for construction workers, and a country that by legalising half a million migrants in just one year sent a message that was heard across Africa.

In Spain, migrants were earning in two weeks what they would in a year in Mali or Guinea, according to a recent report by the International Peace Institute (IPI) on the Canaries issue.

“You were talking to companions who were already in Spain and they told you they earned money to send home,” says Ali Ouattara, one of the thousands of Africans who risked their lives in a cayuco in 2006 and who ended up in Fuerteventura after a year on the road fleeing civil war in Ivory Coast.

“This encourages you to risk everything.”

However, Ouattara’s journey was not an easy one. The cayuco he and 37 others boarded near the town of Tan-Tan in southwestern Morocco for the voyage to Fuerteventura had a second-hand motor, frail construction, and a novice skipper.

“On the third day, the boat had leakages,”  Ouattara told EFE.

“We almost lost hopes of getting out of there. When Maritime Rescue came, we were like a leaf floating in the sea. At that moment I realized the risk we had taken.”

Ouattara was eventually legally able to bring almost all of his family to Fuerteventura, but not his youngest child.

Desperate, he resorted to “pasadores,” or people smugglers, to bring his eight-year-old son Adou to him via Ceuta in 2015.

Ouattara’s story became famous because the smugglers resorted to using a suitcase to hide Adou as he travelled through the border post in the town of Gran Tarajal, on Fuerteventura’s southern coast.

“I would never risk the life of a child in a cayuco, never,” said Ouattara, swearing that he did not know they would put him in a suitcase.

The Ivorian knows he was lucky – thousands of migrants like him perished in similar attempts. The International Organization for Migration estimates that in 2006, the year of the cayucos crisis, some 6,000 people died at sea en route to the Canaries.

Out of every five migrants who reached the coast, one drowned at sea. Perhaps more, Ouattara says, because “the ocean swallowed many” without anyone knowing about them.

The IPI report underlined that in this drama, or rather in the response to it, lies a lesson to be learned from the Canaries. Spain stepped up its rescue operations, first single-handedly, and later with the help of the European Union.

“Priority was given to guaranteeing the most basic right of these people – life,” said Juan Carlos Lorenzo, coordinator of the non-profit Spanish Commission for Refugees (CEAR) in the Canaries, admitting that in the help provided to migrants, “we did what we could.”

Spain received reinforcements from the EU through the border management agency, Frontex, but decisive help also came from Africa, with repatriation agreements and above all, Mauritania and Senegal allowing the Spanish Civil Guard to patrol their coasts to monitor the wave of cayucos.

“Everything changed with the involvement of these countries in the agreements to establish joint patrols and control of the mafias and migratory movements,” says lieutenant colonel of the Civil Guard, Lorenzo Barez, head of the Canary Islands Regional Coordination Center.

The center, created in 2006, is based in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and centralises all the intelligence information on people trafficking along Africa’s west coast.

The result was spectacular – the number of migrants arriving on the islands fell from nearly 32,000 in 2006 (half of them Senegalese) to 12,478 a year later, and then to just 196 in 2010, according to Frontex.

Meanwhile, 4,290 migrants were intercepted and sent back while trying to leave the African coast in 2006. Those numbers doubled a year later but by 2010 the number had dwindled to 365.

“Externalising” their borders, even donating maritime patrols to countries in the region, provided results for the EU in case of the Canaries.

Spain was able to convert the challenge into an opportunity to strengthen ties with West Africa, complementing agreements on migration with others on international cooperation, said Walter Kemp, author of the IPI report.

Could the same approach work in the Mediterranean? Perhaps, but CEAR says the magnitude of what was occurring there was much greater. 

Moreover, IPI noted that Spain had to deal with African governments in different situations, but never with failed states, as is the case of Libya today.

Barez said the large majority of people who came to the Canaries in cayucos or pateras were – and continue to be – migrants fleeing poverty, whereas in the Mediterranean there is a large proportion of people eligible for asylum or refugee status under international laws.

Since 2008 there have been fewer than 1,000 migrants arriving in the Canaries each year. Between 2007 and 2016, only 26,706 irregular migrants reached the Canaries – 5,000 fewer than in 2006.

Fourteen patrol boats from Senegal, Mauritania and Guinea-Bissau ensure no cayucos leave their shores, and they receive constant support from helicopters and ground staff of the Civil Guard and the Spanish police.

However, there are a few pateras that still set off from Western Sahara.

“The outcome is very positive, but one has to be aware that we have not stopped irregular migration, we only have it controlled,” said the Civil Guard official, showing on a map the new routes that have opened towards the Mediterranean. 

“When you block one route, almost always another one opens.”

Spain’s economic woes are also thought to have helped stem the tide of African migrants making their way to the Canaries. In 2006, Spain’s unemployment rate was nine percent. Just seven years later it had soared to 27 percent.

“For some time now, if someone is speaking from his country to a companion in Spain, what he tells him is that he doesn’t have a job,” says Ouattara. 

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