Spain to set up camps for 7,000 migrants in Canary Islands

Spain will set up emergency camps for up to 7,000 migrants as part of a plan to tackle the huge influx of arrivals in the Canary Islands, the government said Friday.

Spain to set up camps for 7,000 migrants in Canary Islands
Migrants stay in a temporary camp set up by the Spanish army in the Barranco Seco area of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. Photo: AFP

The plan also involves reinforcing Salvamento Maritimo's coastguard rescue teams in the area, alongside a diplomatic offensive as part of a concerted push to address the crisis in the holiday islands where more than 12,000 people have landed since September.

Migration Minister Jose Luis Escriva unveiled the details at a news conference in Gran Canaria after talks with regional officials who want urgent government action given the saturation of the islands' migrant services.

Escriva said “tents and emergency encampments with 7,000 places” would be set up within weeks as a temporary solution while the government readied other facilities, mostly military, in a “more stable” setup for processing 

The plan will cost 84 million euros ($98.5 million) which would come from European funds, he said.

The emergency set up would enable the authorities to rehouse the 5,5000 migrants currently staying in tourist accommodation that has almost totally been emptied by the pandemic, along with more than 1,000 others at Gran Canaria's overwhelmed Arguineguin port.

The port camp was initially put up to process arrivals and run virus tests but it has become saturated with more than 2,000 migrants sleeping there although the authorities have since Wednesday been moving hundreds of people into a temporary camp set up by the military near Las Palmas, the capital.

So far this year, more than 18,000 migrants have reached the Canaries, 10 times the number that arrived in 2019. The figures soared after EU agreements with Turkey, Libya and Morocco stemmed the flow along previously popular migrant routes into to Europe.

The crisis has triggered sharp criticism of the patchy response by Spain's left-wing coalition government, with Escriva admitting its response “could have been more proactive”.

Canaries bearing the burden   

Standing beside him at the news conference was the islands' regional chief Angel Victor Torres has asked the government to “urgently” transfer migrants to mainland Spain to ease pressure on the archipelago.

“The Canary Islands categorically refuses to be the place that takes in 100 percent of the migrants that reach Spain, he said.    

Earlier, Defence Minister Margarita Robles also admitted failings in the government's approach to “the humanitarian crisis” and particularly at the port where conditions were “not suitable for human beings”.

On the diplomatic front, Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska met his Moroccan counterpart Abdelouafi Laftit in Rabat on Friday over ways to halt the influx in countries of origin and ease the “emergency situation” in the

“We specified various measures we must take, mainly in the area of combating illegal immigration and fighting criminal organisations” involved in people trafficking, he told reporters.

He also said the coronavirus pandemic was “a major factor influencing the increase of arrivals in the Canary Islands”.   

At the weekend, Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya visited Senegal on a similar mission.   

It is not the first time the archipelago has seen a surge in arrivals. In 2006, 30,000 migrants managed to reach the Canaries before stepped-up Spanish patrols and repatriation agreements with African countries slowed the influx.


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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.