FOCUS: How the Canaries became a stepping stone to Europe

After a three-day boat trip from Western Sahara, Mohceine Ait Lamadane reached the Canaries and from there travelled to Italy, taking advantage of a system swamped by arrivals and slowed by the coronavirus.

FOCUS: How the Canaries became a stepping stone to Europe
Malian migrants stand outside the hotel where they will be housed in Gran Canaria. Photo: Desiree Martin/AFP
“I paid 2,000 euros ($2,430) for the crossing,” 23-year-old Lamdane told AFP in late November after disembarking at Arguineguin port in Gran Canaria where Spain's coastguard drops off migrants picked up at sea.
And barely 10 days later, he was in Italy “with his two brothers”, confirmed his cousin Moulay Omar Semlali, 40, who lives in Gran Canaria, the archipelago's largest island.
It was Semlali who picked him up from Arguineguin, a small fishing port that has in recent months taken centre stage in the crisis, with its temporary camp — that was only set up to process migrants and run virus tests — completely swamped.
At one point, more than 2,100 people were staying there, mostly sleeping rough on the ground in conditions deplored by international rights groups, politicians and legal officials.
Following the criticism, the government dismantled the encampment on November 30, after announcing plans to build emergency encampments to house 7,000 people.
In normal times, when someone enters Spain illegally, the police identify him or her and issue them a deportation order, except in cases where they qualify for international protection as a refugee.
The process must be carried out within the first 72 hours as after that “detention is illegal,” explains Daniel Arencibia, a lawyer who works with migrants in Gran Canaria.
They are then sent to a temporary camp where they wait until they are sent back home.
But the three-day deadline hasn't always been respected by the authorities, who have been completely swamped by the arrival of nearly 20,000 people this year, 10 times the number in 2019.
After 72 hours, free to go
In November, a local judge spoke out to remind the authorities that migrants can no longer be held “against their will” beyond the initial 72 hours.
Nor can those awaiting deportation be sent to temporary detention centres, most of which have either been closed or forced to radically limit their capacity due to the pandemic, which has also put repatriations on hold.
Although the government has dismissed the idea of transferring migrants to mainland Spain — as demanded by the authorities in the Canary Islands — officials admit that some managed to make the journey themselves and from there, travel to other parts of Europe.
Ahead of Arguineguin's closure, many people turned up at the port to search for relatives or friends, an AFP journalist said.
Abdel Rostom, a Moroccan national who lives in Gran Canaria, came to look for the relative of a friend who arrived by boat “in order to send him over to mainland Spain”.
And when around 200 migrants showed up in the southern city of Granada, the Spanish government's rightwing and far-right opponents accused it of chartering a plane to fly them all over.
But the government denied the allegation, saying they were free to do as they please and had bought plane tickets with their own means.
Gateway to Europe
“The bulk of arrivals in recent months have been people who are eligible to be sent back” to Morocco or other African nations, Hana Jalloul, Spain's junior minister for migration, said last month.
But some people “have just left, because they're free and they have family networks (elsewhere),” she said.
In the throes of a diplomatic offensive to reactivate deportations, the interior ministry does not provide figures on such cases.
Jose Luis Guedes, secretary-general of the SUP police union in the Canary Islands, says many North Africans arrive with all their passports and identity cards intact.
“They know they can't be expelled, that they're free, and they manage to travel by their own means to mainland Spain and there they disappear,” he told AFP.
“They go to France, Belgium, Germany which is their real destination,” he explained.
“They don't want to stay in the Canary Islands, it's just a stepping stone.”

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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.