‘It’s very tense’: How can the Canary Islands deal with surge in migrant arrivals?

With over 12,000 migrants arriving since September Spain's Canary Islands and its tourism industry face a difficult challenge and tensions are growing, AFP reports.

'It's very tense': How can the Canary Islands deal with surge in migrant arrivals?
Photos: AFP

In a normal year, it would be high tourist season for the Canary Islands, but a huge influx of migrants has given the archipelago “a bad image,” says bar owner Miguel Gonzalez.    

With migrant reception centres completely swamped after the arrival of more  than 18,000 people this year — 10 times the number in 2019 — many have been put up in hotels and tourist apartments.

The Puerto Rico resort, where Gonzalez runs his bar, and other holiday hotspots would normally be full of tourists at this time of the year.

The coronavirus pandemic had already hit international travel, leaving spare rooms to house migrants temporarily.

“I have a client who's going to sue his travel agency. They never told him that Puerto Rico was full of migrants. He went to the beach and there were groups of 15 or 20 of them not wearing masks,” the bar owner said.

“He didn't leave (the hotel) after that and decided to go back home,” adds Gonzalez, whose Parada bar is located in southern Gran Canaria, the largest of Spain's Canary Islands.

Normally Puerto Rico's spring-like climate during high season draws up to 25,000 visitors, mostly from Scandinavia.

But the resort, whose rocky ravines run down to the Atlantic seafront off the western coast of Morocco, is empty of tourists.

In their place are some 1,500 migrants staying at hotels perched on its steep hillsides.   

Men stand on a balcony in one of the tourist compounds housing some 5,500 migrants in Playa del Ingles on Gran .Canaria


The biggest surge has been this autumn, with more than 12,000 arrivals since September, bringing back memories of 2006 when some 30,000 migrants flocked to the islands.

Overwhelmed by the influx, the authorities have been setting up temporary encampments and housing new arrivals in accommodation normally used for tourists.

But the migrant crisis has compounded the misery for the islands' embattled tourism sector, which accounts for 35 percent of the Canaries' GDP and had been hoping to claw back some of its losses after a year blighted by the pandemic.

Regional statistics show the number of overnight stays in the Canaries slumped to 1.1 million in October, a fall of 86.7 percent compared with the same period in 2019.

'Very tense'

“It's a real shame, there are 40 people (on the beach) when on any other November 24th you wouldn't be able to see the sand,” said Carmelo Suarez, who runs a car hire business.

“We're not against migration but they need places to go. If a person spends money to come here, they don't want to share a hotel with a migrant,” said Suarez, spokesman for a platform for the defence of tourism that is planning a demonstration on Friday.   

In Puerto Rico, where few places are open, hundreds of young migrants are wandering along the beach or hanging out in parks.   

The atmosphere is “very tense”, says Eliazar Hernandez, a waiter at the Balcon Canario restaurant.

“Yesterday a customer told me: I've been here for four days, I've seen enough, I'm going back to Germany',” he told AFP.

Along the seafront, where the temperature is a balmy 25 degrees Celcius (77 degrees Fahrenheit), three shirtless Scandinavian pensioners walk past a group of Senegalese teenagers, all dressed in hoodies.

But not everyone seems bothered.   

“I've spent a week here, my family asks me about the refugees, they've seen it on TV, (but) I have not seen them,” shrugs Swedish tourist David Gustaffson sitting at a bar with a beer in hand.

'I want to stay here'

Along the seafront, the huge Terraza Gran Canaria restaurant which has 60 staff, is closed. Outside, three employees are pinning up signs, one of which shows a coffin with the words “RIP hotel and catering sector”.

“Tourists are cancelling their holidays, they're afraid and they're not coming,” says Benaisa Mohamed, one of the staff who comes from Melilla, one of two Spanish enclaves in North Africa, his colleague from Sierra Leone nodding in agreement.

On the beach, Aliou Gueye, a gangly 17-year-old is playing football with some other youngsters.

“I want to stay here, I like it and I'm learning Spanish,” he says.

By AFP's Pablo Melián


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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.