As arrivals to the Canary Islands continue apace, emergency services, volunteers, and journalists have raised concerns about the lack of reception facilities on Lanzarote. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) says almost 800 people lost their lives on the Canary route between January and August 2021. The increase in journeys on this route over the last month has been linked to both favourable weather conditions and instability in countries of origin.

Boats continue to arrive and be rescued at sea off the Canary Islands, the Spanish archipelago off the northwest coast of Africa. The busiest day of the last seven days was 26 September, when 340 people arrived in eight boats.  Aboard one of these boats, a woman died after being rescued by Salvamento Marítimo (SM), Spain’s civil rescue service. The day before, SM rescued 166 people in five separate operations in waters off Lanzarote and Fuerteventura. On 26 September Moroccan authorities rescued 58 people including a child in distress on a wooden boat off the Tan Tan port. The incident happened one day after the arrest of six alleged human smugglers, one a police officer. During the operation police detained 49 people including nine children attempting to disembark for the Atlantic.   On 27 September, 39 people were rescued and brought to Arrecife (Lanzarote) in the early morning: later, another 42 people arrived in El Hierro. The second tragedy of the week was recorded on 30 September when two men were found dead during the rescue of 48 people by SM. These tragedies illustrate the perilous nature of such journeys from Senegal, Mauritania, or Morocco, as does the disappearance of a boat that left from Dakhla (Morocco) with 27 women, 8 children, and 15 men aboard.

Following “incessant” arrivals in recent weeks, emergency services and volunteers have said reception services on Lanzarote are stretched to their limits. Journalists describe an old warehouse on the island currently being used as a temporary reception centre for recently disembarked people as “seriously deficient”. 200 people who arrived over the weekend of 26-27 September have been transferred to  Fuerteventura and Gran Canaria due to lack of space in the temporary reception centers installed in Arrecife (Lanzarote). 9,000 people have arrived in the Spanish archipelago since the start of the year, compared with 4,000 arrivals recorded in 2020.

IOM says 785 deaths have been recorded on the Atlantic route between January and August 2021, a figure double that of last year. Both NGOs and the IOM acknowledge however that the actual number of people missing and dead will likely never be known. “We know that invisible shipwrecks – which leave no survivors – are frequent on this sea route: these are however almost impossible to corroborate,” said Frank Laczko, director of the IOM’s data analysis centre. Caminando Fronteras, a Spanish NGO, recorded 1,922 deaths in the first half on 2021 alone. Tragedies have been on the rise across all the routes travelled by people seeking to reach Spain, with IOM deeming 2021 “the deadliest year” since 2014. 1,025 lives of people on the Atlantic and Mediterranean routes to the country have been lost so far in 2021, a figure that is double that of 2020.

The factors behind a rise in people embarking on dangerous journeys may go beyond just the favourable weather conditions of the past few weeks, with various commentators pointing to severe political instability in the Sahel and West Africa. Guineans, who make up the fourth-largest nationality of arrival in the Canaries, were recently witness to a coup against long-time President Alpha Condé. According to Amnesty International, the rule of President Condé was marked by widespread human rights abuses that included “banning peaceful assemblies, shutting down the Internet, injuring or killing protesters through excessive use of force, and arbitrarily detaining hundreds of political opposition activists. and civil society”. Guinea, a country that already faced government corruption and ethnic-religious conflicts, has recently experienced severe economic difficulties that have generated violence and riots. Some arrivals to Spain also originate from Mali, where two successive coups have raised fears about the country’s governance and management of terror threats in the Sahel. The average ages in Mali and Guinea are 15 and 19 years respectively: according to journalists, recent events “further restrict the future prospects for young people” in these countries and may drive them to seek a more secure future elsewhere.

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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.