Rescues at sea and arrivals of flimsy boats from Africa on Spain’s Canary Islands, where local authorities are already struggling to cope with the pandemic, have strained emergency services and left hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers stuck for days in a makeshift harbour camp.
Over 1,000 people, including women and at least three toddlers, woke up Wednesday in a dozen emergency tents set up by the Red Cross on the Gran Canaria island’s Arguineguin dock, where they were joined by some of the 300 people rescued in the early hours of the day.
The condition of the migrants, many of whom were left to sleep on the floor for days with just a blanket over them, is redoubling criticism from human rights organizations that see little progress in the government’s handling of the emergency.
While Mediterranean crossings are down this year, arrivals on the Canary islands across a treacherous part of the Atlantic Ocean are up nearly 700% on the year. It’s the most perilous approach to Europe, having claimed more than 200 lives so far in 2020.
The Interior Ministry says more than 8,100 migrants have reached the archipelago, more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) west of the African coast, in roughly 300 boats so far this year. Despite the increase, the final 2020 figure is unlikely to match the 30,000 arrivals seen in 2006.
Spain’s government delegation in the archipelago told The Associated Press that the makeshift facilities in Arguineguin were a response to “an exceptional need, given the intensifying and increasing arrivals of migrants” and that the government was working “around the clock” to find more suitable locations.
Arguing that they lack enough resources, local and regional officials in the Canary Islands have asked the Spanish government for more help, including the use of two military facilities to process the migrants.
Local mayor Onalia Bueno has said that her administration would be filing a complaint in courts if the camp is not dismantled this week and migrants aren’t moved to a more appropriate shelter.
After 72 hours under police supervision for identification, newly arrived migrants would normally be transferred to migrant centers if they qualify for deportation, or to facilities run by non-governmental groups, especially if they apply for asylum.
But the government has blocked nearly all transfers to the Spanish mainland arguing that many international borders are closed for them to be deported or continue on to other European countries. Meanwhile, migrants are tested for COVID-19 and if any are found positive the need for quarantine also lengthens the process.
By mid-Wednesday, Spain’s Maritime Rescue Service had brought to land 325 migrants from 14 boats. That was after nearly 400 were rescued from at least 20 boats on Tuesday, including 10 survivors found along with the dead body of an African man in a boat that was picked up from high seas by a merchant’s vessel.
The surge in traffic to the Canary Islands comes at a high cost in human lives. At least 218 migrants have died on the way or gone missing this year, according to the International Organization for Migration, with most drowning or succumbing to dehydration.