The decision to throw out a court case regarding overcrowding in the Arguineguín pier in 2020 has provoked indignation among migrant rights advocates. Anti-racist campaigners are calling for a re-evaluation of the use of biometric border technologies due to the inherent risks of systemic bias. A tragedy in Moroccan waters has left 43 people dead: meanwhile, a baby was born on the Atlantic route and rescues continue on the Western Mediterranean. These perilous journeys are often generated by harsh conditions across North Africa, including a decade of conflict in the Sahel.

In November 2020, more than 2,600 people were left in insanitary and overcrowded conditions in the Arguineguín pier on Gran Canaria following a high number of arrivals. After a damning Ombudsman report and repeated warnings from NGOs that the camp “did not respect the dignity of people or their fundamental rights”, a prosecutor filed a complaint against the local authorities. On 17 January 2022, the Las Palmas court announced the action was being shelved. Though the conditions were “regrettable”, in the view of the court, the “hardship” suffered did not amount to intentional action by authorities to violate rights. The decision provoked outrage from NGOs and journalists. The prosecutor said “attempts were made to offer shelter, protection and assistance, insufficient if you will, but there was no other alternative, it was not possible to foresee such a massive arrival”. However, Frontex, the EU border and coast guard agency, had already warned in 2019 of a predicted increase in arrivals to the islands. Further, during the crisis some men were held for more than two weeks in police custody, despite Spanish law precluding custody that exceeds 72 hours. The court refused to consider this as unlawful detention, deeming the measures necessary given the circumstances. ECRE member CEAR (Spanish Commission for Refugee Aid) told local radio: “the lack of legal assistance, failures to identify vulnerable persons, illegal detention exceeding 72 hours and inhumane and unhealthy conditions […] should not go unpunished”.

50 anti-racist groups have signed an open letter warning of the dangers of artificial intelligence and other technologies when used at the borders of Spain’s North African enclaves. The government plans to invest 4.1 million euro in “smart borders” in Ceuta and Melilla that apply biometric technologies such as facial recognition and fingerprinting. According to the signatories, which include Oxfam Spain and SOS Racismo this has extensive impacts on fundamental rights, including the rights to privacy and non-discrimination: “[F]acial recognition algorithms often return false positives and false negatives on non-Caucasian faces, which, in this particular context, could have serious consequences for people wrongly identified as terrorist suspects”.  The organisations note that the algorithms used are not publicly available, nor is it clear how they are reviewed, generating transparency and auditability concerns. The letter demands EU data protection legislation be applied also to borders (areas currently considered a “security” domain and thus a legal vacuum for privacy laws), human rights monitoring at borders, publicly available algorithms, and the repeal of facial recognition laws.

Yet another tragedy on the Canary route has resulted in massive loss of life. 43 people are thought to have died on 16 January after a ship with 55 passengers onboard capsized off the coast of Morocco. Despite waiting 11 hours to intervene, the Moroccan Navy picked up 10 survivors and two bodies the following day. Two days prior, the Moroccan Navy intercepted 117 people attempting to disembark from Southern Morocco’s Atlantic coast. The people were given first aid and then arrested for “irregular migration”. According to Morocco World News, since 2017 Morocco has disrupted more than 14,000 “irregular migration attempts”, in contradiction to the international norm of the right to leave any country. The location of a boat that left Morocco on 5 January with 60 passengers is still unknown.

The same day as the deadly shipwreck, 75 people were picked up by Spanish rescuers in the Atlantic. Two bodies thought to be victims of an earlier shipwreck were found off Fuerteventura. The next day, a boat of 60 people was rescued, including a baby born just hours prior. The other key sea route to Spain, via the Western Mediterranean, was also marked by tragedy when a man disappeared after jumping into the water to seek help for his boat in distress. The lives of the nine others in the boat were saved when they were rescued off Carboneras in Southern Spain. Three people who attempted to kayak across the Gibraltar strait were also rescued. According to Spanish police, a criminal network smuggling migrants from Algeria to the coast of Almería has been dismantled.

Perilous journeys from Africa’s Atlantic coast are in many cases driven by displacement in the region. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), a decade of conflict in the Sahel has forced more than 2.5 million people to flee their homes.  Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger together host 410,000 refugees. The majority of these refugees originate from Mali, a country which has been mired in civil conflict, failed coup attempts and extremism for ten years. A spike in violence in 2021 – in which armed groups carried out at least 800 deadly attacks across the Sahel – displaced roughly 500,000 people. In Burkina Faso alone, 1.5 million people are internally displaced. When people try to flee across borders, they risk being further endangered. In December alone, Algeria summarily deported 3,260 people to Niger without due process, leading one Sudanese deportee to die in the desert near the border. Algeria has for several years returned large numbers of people to Niger and Mali without any regard for refoulement risks. Though Algeria has no formal border control agreement with the EU, the bloc equips the Algerian army, police and gendarmerie with large quantities of military and security equipment, including border surveillance technology. According to the activist network Alarm Phone Sahara, this material support has made Algerian authorities the “guardians of the EU border regime”.

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Photo: (CC) Gary Leavens, September 2013

This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.