Spain seeks diplomatic deals to stem Canary Islands migrant surge

Spain is to send two senior ministers to Senegal and Morocco to try and stop soaring numbers of migrants heading to the Canary Islands, which are overwhelmed by new arrivals.

Spain seeks diplomatic deals to stem Canary Islands migrant surge
Migrants from a group of 1,300 rescued from different boats remain in the port of Arguineguin on Gran Canaria. Photo: Desiree Martin/AFP
Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya will head to Senegal on Sunday, while Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska will travel to Morocco on November 20, the islands' regional policy chief Carolina Darias said Friday.
The government “wants to encourage the diplomatic path” to ensure “nobody risks their life getting aboard one of these boats,” she said.
The two ministers have recently visited other African nations which are popular departure points for migrants hoping to reach Europe such as Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania and landlocked Chad.
At the same time, she said, Madrid would also tighten security around the Canary Islands, which lie around 100 kilometres (60 miles) off Morocco's western coast.
And the government would add several more ships as well as a submarine, a helicopter and a plane to the existing fleet patrolling the waters between the African coast and the volcanic archipelago.
A similar strategy was adopted by Madrid in 2006 when some 30,000 migrants reached the Canary Islands.
At the time, Spain stepped up patrols and signed treaties with countries like Senegal and Mauritania to stem the flow, often in exchange for financial aid.
'Doomed to failure'
But rights groups said the strategy was unlikely to work.
“In 2006, they tried to impose strict border controls at the point of origin.. but it didn't stop people from coming,” said Virginia Alverez, head of research at Amnesty International in Spain, explaining the migrants simply took other routes.
“They want to transfer responsibility to third countries and that is doomed to failure,” she told AFP.
And Judith Sunderland, acting deputy director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch agreed.
“That might work in the short term but it doesn't work in the long term,” she told AFP. “You close one route and another route opens and usually, that new route is more expensive and more dangerous.”
The route from western Africa to the Canaries is notoriously dangerous, but it has once again become popular with migrants as authorities have cracked down on other Mediterranean routes.
There has been a surge in migrant arrivals in the Canary Islands in recent months after the EU reached border control agreements with Morocco, Libya and Turkey.
So far this year, more than 16,000 migrants have reached the Canary Islands — nearly 10 times the number that arrived in the whole of 2019.
Last weekend alone, the number of people reaching the islands spiked with more than 2,000 arrivals — including a record 1,400 on one day.
Overcrowded port
Earlier this week, Amnesty and HRW called for urgent changes at Arguineguin port on Gran Canaria where some 1,800 people are staying at a temporary encampment that was only set up to process arrivals.
“The situation at the port is complicated, there is a huge amount of people,” admitted Inigo Vila, head of emergencies at the Red Cross, who is running the operation.
HRW's Sunderland, who visited the port on November 7 before the huge weekend influx, said migrants were sleeping on the ground with one portable toilet to serve 30 to 40 people.
“Even if it was not over capacity, the conditions wouldn't respect their dignity,” she said on Friday.
The government has vowed to dismantle the temporary camp and move the migrants to military sites elsewhere on the archipelago.

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How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.