BARCELONA – Spain’s government is scrambling to manage the steady stream of migrants to its Canary Islands from West Africa by opening a second holding camp, officials said Wednesday, as political tensions rise in the Atlantic archipelago.
The establishment of a second temporary migrant processing center on the island of Gran Canaria comes amid increasing criticism from local authorities and human rights groups. Officials on the ground say that they can't adequately care for the thousands of migrants who have arrived by boat in recent weeks.
Spain’s Interior Ministry said authorities relieved pressure on an overrun makeshift shelter packed with nearly 2,300 migrants on the island's southwest coast by transferring around 200 of its occupants to a second camp set up on grounds provided by the military.
A pier on the quiet southwest coast of Gran Canaria has become the center of Spain’s ongoing humanitarian crisis. Thousands of migrants who have survived the perilous journey in flimsy wooden or rubber boats have been kept on the Arguineguín pier for days on end. With the installation originally planned to shelter 400 people in Red Cross tents, many have slept on the concrete and spent hours exposed to the sun.
Officially, police can hold migrants who arrive without authorization for 72 hours, unless they need to be kept longer to complete a quarantine for testing positive for COVID-19. Municipal authorities said that 79 of those currently held on the pier had tested positive for the virus.
Humanitarian groups, however, said that various migrants they have interviewed say that they have spent longer than three days on the pier.
The new camp opening Wednesday will be able to hold 800 people in tents, according to the Interior Ministry. It has been set up at a decommissioned military ammunition dump at Barranco Seco. New arrivals, the ministry said, can be taken directly to the new camp instead of being held at the pier if needed.
The relief for the pier comes a day after 197 migrants were released from there without any provisions being made to house or feed them. That led to confusion among the migrants and residents.
Local mayor Onalia Bueno had to intervene to organize buses to take them to Las Palmas, the island’s capital city.
“We had to take control of the situation because we couldn’t have all these people wandering the streets or the island without any means,” Bueno said. “These people have the right to dignified shelter just like all those being kept in hotels.”
Normally, officials take those migrants who are released to housing provided by authorities in hotels, many of which have been left without clients because of the pandemic. A busload of 84 migrants were removed from the pier on Wednesday.
Canary lawmaker Ana Oramas told her fellow members of Spain’s Parliament that the situation was unsustainable after an influx of over 16,760 migrants to archipelago this year, a 1,000% from the same period in 2019. More than half of that total is from the last four weeks.
“The Canary Islands are a powder keg. They are a volcano waiting to explode,” Oramas told the Parliament on Wednesday.
Spanish Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska said his ministry is studying what went wrong with the release of the nearly 200 without a place to go.
But Grande-Marlaska defended his government, saying that migrant arrivals fell by 50% from 2018 to 2019, in part thanks to deals struck by Spain and the European Union with Morocco and other countries. The minister is set to travel to Morocco for another meeting with its government on Friday. Flights to repatriate some migrants have also started.
“We see the migrants who arrive, but not those who we have prevented from coming and putting their lives at risk by putting them in the hands of mafias” of human trafficking, Grande-Marlaska said.
With at least 493 deaths recorded so far this year, the route to the Canary Islands has seen proportionally more deaths per every arrival than the Central Mediterranean journey from Libya to Italy or Malta.