MADRID – The shaky video taken with a mobile phone shows sunbathers on a beach in Gran Canaria gazing out to sea at the boat heads to land.
A coast guard vessel, Salvamar Menkalinan, races to reach the 49 migrants crammed into one fragile boat. Meanwhile, tourists amuse themselves on jet-skis.
Two very different worlds collide as African migrants get their first sight of the Europe they have risked their lives to reach.
Once, these precarious dinghies were a rare sight in the Canary Islands. Now they are an almost daily occurrence.
Traffickers have switched routes, moving their human cargo along the dangerous route between western Africa to Spain’s archipelago in the Atlantic instead of across the Mediterranean to the southern coast of the country’s mainland.
So far this year, there has been a 520% rise in migrant arrivals to the Canary Islands compared with the same period in 2019, with 3,448 migrants reaching the seven islands up until August 15, according to the Spanish government figures.
In comparison, there was a 26.6% decrease in the number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean to Spain this year compared with the same period in 2019, year, with 10,716 arriving in Europe compared to 14,597 last year.
The more perilous Atlantic route has claimed its toll.
A total of 239 migrants have died trying to reach the Canaries between January 1 and August 19, compared to 210 during all of last year, and 43 in 2018, according to the International Organization for Migration, IOM.
“It is the grim toll which the sea takes. This is a very dangerous route,” Maria Greco, of the migrant rights group Entre Mares, told VOA in an interview.
“The longest route is between Africa and the island of Fuerteventura which can involve a journey up to five days at sea.”
Traffickers have lowered their prices from around $2,377 to about $951.
The boats depart not only from Morocco and Mauritania, the two nations closest to the archipelago, but also from Senegal and Gambia, over 1,000 kilometers further south.
Most migrants attempting the crossing come from Africa’s Sahel region and Western Africa, Greco said.
But some arrivals have originated from as far away as South Sudan and the Comoros Islands in the Indian Ocean, she added.
The change in routes owes nothing to the way the COVID-19 pandemic has forced countries to close their borders and is due more to international politics, says Ms. Greco.
She believes governments play a “macabre game” by influencing how the traffickers work.
“The route to the Canary Islands is not new. In September last year, Frontex (the EU frontier security force) noted that the route was changing. Investments by Spain and other EU countries in countries like Morocco – where the migrants had come from – has meant these countries have tightened security. It has forced the traffickers to go elsewhere.”
The decision of Morocco to move migrants away from its north shore in September 2019 to prevent them from setting off in dinghies or even toy boats towards Spain proved crucial, Txema Santana, of the Spanish Commission for Refugee Aid, CEAR, said.
Anxious to halt the tide of migrants arriving on Spanish beaches, the European Union paid Morocco $463 million to support reforms including border management – shorthand for aid for clamping down on migrant departures.
Josep Borrell, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, said at the time: “Morocco has long been an essential partner of the European Union with which we share borders and aspirations.
“Faced with shared challenges, the time has come to give new impetus to our relationship through deeper and more diversified cooperation, including towards Africa, in order to link our futures and bring our peoples closer together.”
Morocco completed its side of the deal and moved migrants away from its northern shore in September to the south of the country.
Similar deals had been struck between the European Union and Libya and Turkey, which have also served as launching pads for migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.
“If you move them away from the north, you push them south. And the Canaries are in the south,” Santana said.
“The south of Morocco is near the Western Sahara and Mauritania – two places where the migrants can get on boats to leave for the Canary Islands.”
One migrant dies for every 16 who reach the archipelago alive, Mr Santana estimates.
“People set off on packed, shaky boats which are driven by people without experience,” he said.
Migrants who arrive in the islands are tested for COVID-19 and anyone found to be infected must quarantine.
However, Santana said that migrants can wait up to six months for their asylum cases to be considered and, meanwhile, have to live in cramped, unhygienic conditions.
“I don’t see any indication that the situation will change quickly,” he said.
A spokeswoman for the Spanish government said, “We are processing cases as fast as we can be we have seen a large surge in cases recently.”
The Canary Islands have been a hotspot for migrants before — in 2006, some 30,000 migrants managed to reach the archipelago before stepped-up Spanish patrols then slowed the pace.
At the time, Spain struck a deal with African countries that were the source of these migrants, promising financial aid in return for development programs which made it less attractive for them to leave their home countries.
In an unusual move, Madrid opened its only police station on foreign soil, posting five officers permanently in Mauritania to halt the flow of migrants.
Together, both measures halted the surge of migrants to the Canary Islands – until now.
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