On August 19, a Barbados-registered cargo ship 150 miles from Spain’s Canary Islands came across a semi-submerged plastic motorboat. Inside, the crew discovered a thirty-year-old woman from the Ivory Coast — the last survivor of a group of fifty-three people that had set out seven days earlier from the shore close to the southern Moroccan border.
In theory, the crossing to the popular Spanish tourist island of Fuerteventura should take approximately twenty-four hours. Yet such boats are not designed for crossing vast stretches of open ocean in the Atlantic and can be easily swept off course.
“Each of the other fifty-two people [onboard] died before the eyes of this final survivor,” wrote Helena Maleno, director of the NGO Caminando Fronteras. “These people spent seven harrowing days adrift on the world’s most dangerous migration route.”
This was no isolated case. As the European Union (EU) and Spain have tightened border controls across various Mediterranean routes in recent years, migrants have increasingly turned to the far more perilous crossing from Africa’s north and northwest Atlantic coasts to the Canaries. The numbers reaching the Spanish islands increased 750 percent in 2020, while the first six months of 2021 saw a further 120 percent rise over the same period the previous year.
The result has been an escalating humanitarian tragedy. It’s notoriously difficult to calculate the number of people who die on the crossing, largely because of the frequency of “invisible shipwrecks,” where whole boats disappear into the ocean without a trace. But Caminando Fronteras has calculated the total number of confirmed dead and disappeared at 1,851 people during 2020 and already over two thousand in 2021.
Many survivors who did reach the islands bear testament to the horrors associated with the crossing. Near Canteras Beach in the Canaries’ capital, Las Palmas, we met Fallou, a seventeen-year-old from Senegal. In October 2020, he boarded a wooden fishing boat (known as a cayuco) to make the six-hundred-mile sea journey from the West African country to the islands.
“We spent twelve days at sea,” he tells Jacobin. “Ten people on the boat died. The food was gone, the water was gone, and we no longer had fuel for the engine. I was very weak when we were eventually rescued.”
The next day, among the tourist restaurants lining the nearby Plaza de Santa Catalina, we met Ismael (seventeen years old) and Tupac (thirty-four), two migrants from Western Sahara. “There were forty-six people crammed into seven meters, one on top of each other,” recalls Tupac.
Imagine spending seven days like that in a small wooden fishing boat on the Atlantic Ocean. All you can see is water and nothing else. Inside you the paranoia builds.
There are people crying, people who want to die because there is no water left, people already dead in the boat. Five people died on the journey and we had to push the bodies overboard.
Ismael, rescued by the Spanish coast guard after four days on the ocean this May, had paid more than €2,500 for a place on a smaller patera fishing boat. He remembered “praying to God and asking him not to be angry, not to let a big wave come because it could break the boat in two.”
He and the tens of thousands of others forced to risk their lives and undergo such trauma are living proof of the brutality of the EU border regime. Their experiences contrast starkly with European leaders’ statements concerning the bloc’s “moral duty” to secure “legal and safe routes” for refugees fleeing Afghanistan after Western forces’ chaotic withdrawal from the country. Indeed, the death toll on the Canaries migration routes is bound up with the fact that the EU has converted its frontiers into extralegal spaces where basic human rights protections have been largely suspended.
A Counterproductive Model
In 2020, the vast majority of the twenty-three thousand undocumented migrants arriving to the Canaries were from seven African countries: 52 percent from Morocco and the occupied Western Sahara, 20 percent from Senegal, 18 percent from Mali, and a total 9 percent from the Ivory Coast, Guinea, and Gambia combined. These people set off from different points along a more than six-hundred-mile-long stretch of the West African coast, including a small number from as far south as Gambia.
For Juan Carlos Lorenzo, the Canaries coordinator for the Spanish Refugee Aid Commission (CEAR), an obvious and immediate factor driving the increased numbers along this route has “been the disastrous economic effects of the pandemic, particularly in countries like Morocco with a large tourist industry and no working welfare state.” He also cites the deepening conflict in Mali, the effects of climate change on farming in the Sahel region of Africa, and the devastation of Senegal’s vital fishing sector due to overfishing by foreign trawlers.
On top of these pressures, however, Lorenzo believes there is a further process that has been key in pushing the redirected migration flows toward the Canaries. Over the last decade, the EU and its member states have converged around a “Fortress Europe” strategy toward border control, with a series of draconian policies across the bloc’s southern frontiers. Such measures include the upgrading of border surveillance systems, the building and strengthening of boundary walls and fences, the rapid deportation of migrants without due process, and the externalization of border management to third countries.
The latter policy in particular — outsourcing EU border security enforcement to authoritarian governments in Turkey and Libya — has led to widespread abuses. The UN Human Rights Commission has repeatedly criticized the EU and Italian financing of the Libyan coast guard as well as their cooperation on the practice of the forced return of migrants to Libya — where they face “inhuman” conditions in migrant detention centers.
Along with Turkey and Libya, Morocco is currently a major beneficiary of EU border funds. In 2018, the European Commission (EC) committed €148 million to its border forces, while Madrid has spent an additional €90 million in assistance over the last three years. These Spanish funds included a donation of €26 million in border defense equipment — comprising 750 vehicles, 15 drones, and dozens of scanners and radars (meaning lucrative contracts for Spain’s defense sector).
By the end of 2019, this increased border security cooperation was hailed as key to a 50 percent drop in irregular migration across the short passage from North Africa to the Spanish mainland — a downward trend that continued into 2020.
Yet, as activist Ana Rosado Caro notes, “migration flows are, in reality, impossible to halt, and if you block one route, another more dangerous one will just open up.” Txema Santana, a regional government advisor in the islands, tells Jacobin that
there was an initial surge in immigration to the Canaries even before the pandemic, beginning in September 2019.
And the conditions driving this initial surge continue today — namely, the blocked routes via North Africa. People who arrived here then — and it is often still the case now — tell us they had first tried to make it to Europe via northern Morocco or even Libya before coming here.
They understand the increased dangers of the Atlantic route and that you can easily die, but they also know that thousands have made it here alive.
In this sense, you hear people saying it is like flipping a coin: in fourteen days you will know if you are alive or dead — whereas in Libya, for example, you could be detained and end up spending years there in desperation. With these options, they would prefer to take the risk and see if they live or die trying to reach the islands.
Europe’s Island Jails
Few other leaders better embody the hypocrisy of the EU’s approach to migration than Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez. Since taking up office in 2018, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) leader has repeatedly looked to Europe’s migration crisis as a means to boast of his progressive credentials, actively seeking opportunities to contrast his more liberal, humanitarian stance with the hard-right policies pursued by the likes of Hungarian premier Viktor Orbán.
In recent months, Sánchez has positioned his government as leading the way on international Afghan refugee hub initiatives, offering to receive thousands at an Andalusian military base until their further travel arrangements could be secured — thus winning plaudits from President Joe Biden and EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen. “In times of need, Spain has shown humanity and solidarity,” insisted Von der Leyen. “It is an example for the soul of Europe.”
Yet Sánchez’s handling of migration along Spain’s own borders, particularly over the last year, tells a different story. Rapid forced expulsions of five thousand people who entered Spain’s North African enclave of Ceuta in May 2021, after Morocco opened its border in a geopolitical maneuver, is one example of the prime minister’s willingness to waive due process. This was also visible in this summer’s deployment of riot police on a Spanish promontory off the Moroccan coast, forcing back 125 sub-Saharan Africans who were seeking asylum. But the other major symbol of his administration’s punitive approach were the images last fall of 2,500 people detained in the open air on a pier at the Arguineguín Harbor in Gran Canaria.
“They rescued us from the sea,” recounts Moha, a twenty-six-year-old Moroccan, in a recent CEAR report, “and brought us to Arguineguín, where we spent nearly a month sleeping on the ground and going hungry. Days would pass without being able to wash.”
For migration analyst Blanca Garcés, part of what led to these scenes was the unpreparedness of the regional and national administrations that were overwhelmed by the arrival of eighteen thousand people between September and December 2020. But, as she notes, it was also a consequence of an intentional policy of blocking the thousands of new arrivals from leaving the islands despite mainland Spain’s greater capacity to deal with the influx.
In this respect, Garcés sees the Spanish government’s policy as in line with the practice of creating “island jails,” spaces of detention and misery on Europe’s frontier islands, a model already being enforced in Lesbos and Samos in Greece and Lampedusa in Italy.
Sánchez and his interior minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska received repeated criticism from both the Canaries’ regional government and PSOE’s coalition partner Unidas Podemos for their refusal to reverse this containment policy, even as conditions on the island worsened over the winter. Podemos’s parliamentary group sent an open letter to Grande-Marlaska in February demanding the immediate transfer of “all migrants in a vulnerable situation” to the mainland. But Sánchez was also coming under intense pressure from Brussels to hold the line and contain the migratory pressures on continental Europe. Particular pressure came from Paris, which was concerned that France would be the final destination for this heavily Francophone population.
Ultimately, the issue was resolved in the courts, as a judge in the Canaries ruled this April that migrants had the right to travel throughout Spanish territory while their cases were being processed. Yet this was not before the containment policy had stretched local social services to their limits. “We were completely overwhelmed and burnt out and could not focus on much more than the immediate concerns of finding accommodation for new arrivals,” Juan Carlos Lorenzo tells Jacobin.
“In this chaos, the legal rights of migrants were neglected, such as attending to the asylum requests of those who had come from Mali.” For Lorenzo, there was also “a devastating impact on migrants’ mental health, with a high number of cases of self-harm and mental illness as they struggled with the reality of not being able to work or leave the islands. This was not what they had risked their lives to come here for.”
The Need for Change
Now the Canaries are facing another fall peak, as migrants seek to cross the calmer waters typical of this time of year. Four thousand people reached the archipelago via the Atlantic route in September, including more than six hundred arriving in Lanzarote in the final week of the month. This has led to fresh footage of hundreds of new arrivals being housed in an unsanitary industrial warehouse on the island while emergency services have been further stretched by the once-in-a-generation volcanic eruption on La Palma island.
At the same time, more than a thousand miles north of the Canaries in the Basque Country, some of those who made the crossing to the islands over the last year are again being forced to take their lives into their own hands as they seek to reach France.
“It is inevitable, after having sailed in a patera adrift on the Atlantic for a number of days, to think that crossing the Bidasoa River [on the French-Spanish border] is not a major risk,” writes Gessamí Forner in El Salto Diario. “But [in August] the second migrant in three months died trying to cross,” as France continued to impose border checks along all major land routes.
“I recently met a young man from Mali who had just arrived in the Canaries,” Santana tells Jacobin. “His cell phone is in French, he has family in France, friends in France, one of his grandparents had lived in France before returning to Mali, the central bank of his country is in France, French soldiers are in his country. So he asked me: ‘Why can’t I go to France if all my world is in French?’ For a lad like that, borders have no meaning — even if they are a geopolitical reality.”
Both Santana and Lorenzo call for a meaningful response from European governments that goes beyond simply paying other countries to police the bloc’s borders. “It also has to be about creating safe legal routes and inclusive emigration programs,” Lorenzo insists, “as well as creating humanitarian corridors whereby people are able to exercise their right to seek asylum without also having to put their lives at risk.”
For Santana, “Forcing people to arrive irregularly just increases their stigmatization and reinforces the idea that they are poor and are here to invade us. We don’t allow them to arrive in normal clothes at the airport with their passport and then to seek work in a regular way.” He added that legal passage was the only way to comprehensively neutralize the organized crime groups that are engaged in human trafficking along the existing routes.
Meanwhile, the agony on the Atlantic continues. The latest shipwreck, reported October 1, is believed to have ended with fifty-seven people (including twelve children) dead. They had managed to place an emergency call two days earlier, giving hope to their families who had been waiting nearly a week for news of them.
“You could only hear their voices and screams for a few seconds,” recounts Helena Maleno. “Calling the navy, ‘We are in trouble,’ and then silence once again.”