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Spain in diplomatic push over migrant flow to Canary Islands

MADRID – The Spanish government is ratcheting up its response to the steady build-up of migrant arrivals to the Canary Islands from Africa, including a fresh diplomatic offensive.

Though the government has come under pressure from local officials to transfer a significant number of migrants and asylum seekers to the Spanish mainland, Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska said Friday that the main focus will be on deporting those who don't qualify for refugee status or work in Europe.

“We have to fight against irregular migration and prevent the establishment of irregular entry routes into Europe," the minister said in the Moroccan capital of Rabat following a meeting with his Moroccan counterpart, Abdelouafi Laftit, to discuss how to speed up deportations and stem the departure of boats heading to the Canary Islands.

Moroccans have been the most numerous among recent migrant arrivals to the Spanish archipelago, whose nearest islands lie around 70 miles (110 kms) west of the north African nation.

More than 18,000 people fleeing poverty, violence or other circumstances at home have arrived in the islands this year, a 1,000% increase from the same period in 2019, and over 500 have died in the attempt. Around half of those arrivals —and most of the deaths— have been in the past 30 days, a spike that has strained resources on the Canary Islands.

Most of those who survive the perilous Atlantic route to Europe are rescued at sea and transferred to a port in the Gran Canaria island. Around 2,000 have been sleeping in docks for days and even weeks, under Red Cross marquees and often on the hard concrete.

A few hundred have been transferred to a makeshift camp put up by the military in the past couple of days, where the migrants are supposed to spend the 72 first hours under police custody. That is the maximum time the law allows for identification, but testing for coronavirus has often kept them detained for longer, according to human rights groups.

On a visit to the archipelago on Friday, Spain's migration minister, José Luis Escrivá, said authorities will be building by December a network of emergency camps to host up to 7,000 people in three of the islands.

Some of them will be the 5,500 people currently housed in hotels and tourist apartments that are lying empty because of a lack of visitors as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Normally at this time of year, the islands are one of the most popular holiday destinations in Europe.

Spanish Transport Minister José Luis Ábalos, also on the island, pledged more resources to the stretched maritime rescue services.

Meanwhile, Spain's Foreign Minister Arancha González-Laya was due to hold talks with officials from the United Nations migration and refugee bodies in Geneva, ahead of a weekend trip to Senegal. The west African country has become a major point of migrant departures even though it is around 950 miles (1,500 kms) away.

Spain restricts asylum to a number of circumstances and countries of origin. It has bilateral agreements with half a dozen neighboring African countries who under normal circumstances take back those who don’t qualify to stay in Europe. But the number returning has slowed sharply this year during the pandemic, which has led to a series of border closures.

Spain is resisting calls for the migrants to be transferred to the mainland, arguing that it would send a message that the archipelago is a stepping stone into Europe. Its strategy is akin to that being undertaken in Greece, which has opted to keep thousands of migrants in refugee camps on its islands.

The government has also faced criticism for not being better prepared for a surge in migrant numbers given that more than 30,000 arrived in the archipelago in 2006.

The European border agency, Frontex, and the International Organization for Migration have been warning since July of the incremental number of arrivals and a subsequent humanitarian crisis.

The IOM's Spain envoy, María Jesús Herrera, who was on a field visit in the islands this week, described the situation as “critical."

“This has been a big warning to all authorities that we need to work with more speed and greater coordination," Herrera told The Associated Press on Thursday.

She said there was a shortage of police to help identify arrivals, health personnel to perform coronavirus tests, social workers to assist vulnerable people, and lawyers to process asylum applications.

The IOM's Missing Migrants Project has recorded more than 500 deaths on the route to the Canary Islands, most during October and November, compared to 210 last year, but the organization fears the death toll is a low estimate.

Some 60 people are believed to have died in the latest shipwreck reported Sunday after 66 migrants, including children, arrived in Cape Verde on a damaged boat.

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Tarik El Barakah in Rabat, Morocco, and Carley Petesch in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to this report.