How Mali toddler’s death is exposing human side of Canary Islands’ migrant crisis

She was just two years old. And her death this weekend after days fighting for her life puts a harrowingly human face on the migrant crisis in the Canary Islands.

How Mali toddler's death is exposing human side of Canary Islands' migrant crisis
Stock photo: Jorge Guerrero,Desiree Martín/AFP

She was brought to Arguineguin port on Gran Canaria island last Tuesday after Spain’s Salvamento Maritimo coastguard rescued a boat carrying 52 people, among them her mother and older sister, who had spent days at sea surviving on seawater.

All but dead, two Red Cross medics worked furiously to revive the toddler on the harbour floor, their desperate rescue efforts ultimately successful in a series of poignant images that made headlines in Spain and beyond.

Still in critical condition suffering from severe hypothermia, she spent five days in intensive care at one of the island’s hospitals, but died on Sunday.

She was the 19th person known to have died this year while attempting the treacherous sea voyage from the coast of Africa, a route which is attracting soaring numbers of migrants.

Angel Victor Torres, the Canaries’ regional head, said her death gave a harrowing glimpse into the plight of those willing to risk life and limb for a better life.

The two-year-old “is the face of the humanitarian tragedy of immigration,” he wrote on Twitter.

“She sought a better life, she was two. Rest in peace.”

Thanking all those who “fought to the end to save her life,” Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said the death of the girl, whose name is uncertain, was “a wake-up call for everyone.”

“There are no words to describe so much heartache,” he tweeted.

Extreme danger

Juan Miguel Vela, one of the two medics who helped resuscitate the toddler at the port, said many of those on board are “in a really bad way”.

“It was a traumatic situation because if she hadn’t responded at that moment, we would have had to leave her and help the others,” he told El Dia local newspaper last week.

“It’s insane you have to reach such an extreme situation to appreciate a reality that we are seeing every single day.”

At its closest, the African coast lies some 100 kilometres (60 miles) away by sea.

But those on board told rescuers they had come from Dakhla, a port in Western Sahara some 450 kilometres to the south, and had been at sea for four or five days, local media reported.

The Atlantic route is notoriously dangerous due to extremely strong currents, with vessels typically overcrowded and in very poor condition, with 1,851 people dying en route in 2020, according to Caminando Fronteras which monitors migrant flows.

“Although it’s the route with the highest mortality rate, it is becoming increasingly busy: people are taking the risk because of the increased patrols along the Mediterranean routes,” the NGO says.

Pandemic spurring ‘flight effect’

Rights groups believe the situation is worsening as a direct result of the economic crisis triggered by the pandemic.

“If at first the pandemic slowed migratory flows, it has ultimately spurred the flight effect,” says Spain’s APDHA rights association in a report released Monday called “Human rights on the southern border 2021” .

“Workers in tourism, fishing or other casual jobs have been left without resources and are choosing to cross the Atlantic themselves or helping others cross with their boats.”

The influx has echoes of the so-called “canoe crisis” of 2006 when 30,000 migrants reached the archipelago.

Last year, 23,023 migrants reached the archipelago, a figure eight times higher than in 2019, causing chaos at Arguineguin port where thousands were forced to sleep rough in appalling conditions deplored by rights groups, politicians and legal officials.

But this year, the numbers are twice as high with 2,580 migrants reaching the islands between January 1 and March 15, up from 1,219 in 2019, official figures show.

To address the crisis, Spain began building encampments to house 7,000 people and also stepped up diplomatic efforts in various African nations to curb the arrivals at source while reviving repatriation efforts in efforts denounced by the APDHA.

“Trying to stop (migrant arrivals) through repression, increased military patrols and criminalisation, as the EU and this government has repeatedly tried to do, is an objective which is doomed to failure,” the NGO said.

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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.