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    the shore of the Canary Island, Spain.

    Canarian Crossroads

    It’s life or death for African migrants crossing to the Canary Islands.

    By Diego Gómez Pickering

    October 20, 2021
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    The soft accent of Canarian Spanish is one-third Cuban, one-third Venezuelan, and one-third Andalusian, like the local saltwater-boiled potatoes served with green pepper sauce and malmsey. The tourists are German, French, Swedish, English, and Iberian. Grand Canary and her sisters are Atlantic, maritime, African, American, and insular: the “Fortunate Isles,” but also the islands of misfortune. Islands of life and, simultaneously, of death. Or, in (conveniently suppressed) truth, deaths.

    According to the United Nations International Organization for Migration (IOM), at least 250 migrants and asylum seekers died in the first six months of 2021 on the so-called “Atlantic Route,” across the strait that separates the Canary Islands from the western coast of Africa. The crossing is a four- or five-day journey in boats as risky as the pasts and futures of those who see no other option than to embark on this one-way trip. It’s an endeavor with no clear destination, steered straight into the trade winds, tossed and sprayed by powerful ocean currents. Landings, shipwrecks, and rescues change little with island they chance upon: be they the shores of southern Tenerife, the Grand Canary port, the black sand beaches of Lanzarote, the idyllic tourist sea towns of Fuerteventura, or the perilous cliffs of El Hierro.

    “We could have avoided this,” sighs a young paramedic, his gaze fixed on the concrete floor cracked by salt and time. On a pier in the tiny port of Arguineguín, he and other Red Cross rescuers treated little Nabody, a girl rescued from a dinghy off the southern coast of Grand Canary. The young man, who prefers to remain anonymous, recalls the many hours he spent on the high seas rescuing the occupants of the boat that carried the twenty-four-month-old; the resuscitation attempts on the pier after she went into cardiopulmonary arrest from the icy water; her subsequent admission to the hospital with barely palpable vital signs. She died five days later in the pediatric ICU of the island’s university hospital.

    “Leaving was unavoidable; nothing, no one could have stopped us,” the mother of the dead toddler confesses dryly and firmly, her voice resigned but resolute. She sits in the waiting room of the emergency department where six of the dinghy’s nine child passengers are still recovering. The grieving mother alludes to her decision to emigrate, to leave behind her Malian village plagued by drought, Tuareg separatism, Islamic fundamentalism, grinding poverty and, most recently, the Covid-19 pandemic. She and her fellow travelers on the ill-fated craft pushed off from Dakhla, Western Sahara, early in March, bound for this archipelago still under the dominion of Spain.

    Besides Nabody, her mother, and her thirteen-year-old sister (who survived the ordeal), forty-nine people traveled in this rickety craft that now lies at the bottom of the Atlantic: twenty-eight women (one of them pregnant), fourteen men, and seven children. Most of them came from sub-Saharan nations: Mali, Guinea, Senegal, Ivory Coast, and Cameroon. All are countries with troubled political, social, economic, and healthcare situations that only worsened throughout 2020. In fact, since mid-2020, this migrant route which had lain dormant for many years – like the islands’ volcanos – has been revived, its eruption triggering an urgent humanitarian crisis in the Canaries.

    According to a report published in March 2021 by the IOM, 22,034 undocumented migrants arrived in the Canary Islands in 2020. The journeys vary from the mere 64 miles that separate Morocco from Fuerteventura to over 900 miles between Senegal and Tenerife. The report also shows that this is the second highest number of maritime migrant arrivals in the islands’ history: only the 2006 “Cayucos” crisis, which put the Canary Islands on the world migration map with the arrival of over 31,600 Africans in battered boats, surpasses it. The agency estimates that 850 migrants died in 2020 attempting to reach the Canaries, a dramatic increase over the less than fifty deaths recorded annually between 2014 and 2018.

    Migrants from Morocco walk along the shore escorted by Spanish Police after arriving at the coast of the Canary Island, Spain.

    October 20, 2020: Migrants from Morocco walk along the shore escorted by Spanish Police after arriving at the coast of the Canary Island, Spain. (AP Photo/Javier Bauluz)

    “This is paradise! All the gays in Europe are here – it’s just nuts!” declares Joseph, a German tourist, blushing as he assumes various poses in his swimsuit on the legendary, Instagrammable dunes of Maspalomas in southern Grand Canary. The returning stream of tourists, albeit just a trickle, brings welcomed relief to the battered archipelago after the pandemic’s travel restrictions dried up the main income stream last year.

    “This is hell. An endless imprisonment. A nightmare,” says Osman Mbour, a seventeen-year-old Senegalese youth, in a tired voice. He has been imprisoned in a gilded cage since coming to Grand Canary in a dinghy at the end of November 2020, confined to the space between a hotel’s pool and its rooftop terraces overlooking the ocean. He is staying with about twenty of his compatriots and thirty Maghreb teens, all underage, housed two per room in the Hotel Puerto Calma in the tourist district of Puerto Rico, a town at the southern end of the island. The young men receive medical attention if needed and have access to free meals, but are awaiting, who knows for how long, an answer regarding their asylum status. Osman left behind his mother and four siblings who, in the eyes of his father’s other three wives and their respective children, he has the obligation to support. This is why he embarked on a journey which, after five months of confinement, has not yet led to a friendly port.

    Of the unauthorized migrants who land, shipwreck, or are rescued in the Canaries, 12 percent are women and 6 percent are children. “Migration is a real drama. … These are people who are only looking for a better life,” declares Anselmo Pestana, Spanish Government Delegate for the Canary Islands, in a February 2021 article. It was published in the main local newspaper, La Provincia, shortly after fifty-eight people were rescued from a craft in El Hierro’s territorial waters. Not everyone shares this point of view. “The Canary Islands suffer a triple plague: the epidemic, invasion by illegal immigrants, and institutional abandonment,” exhorts Javier Ortega Smith, secretary-general of the far-right party Vox, two days after the death of little Nabody. He is speaking during a tour of Grand Canary, compelling his few but vocal followers to democratically take over the local parliament.

    The Canaries are synonymous with movement and transition: an exchange between continents, cultures, ideas, and people. Spain’s conquest of these islands in the fifteenth century was a prelude to its colonization of the Americas. As recently as a few decades ago, whole families left from here – often illegally – with nothing but the clothes on their backs, escaping the miseries of Franco’s rule and seeking a better future on the other side of the Atlantic. El Hierro is a case in point. This smallest, remotest, and least populated Canary island saw half of its population leave for Venezuela in the 1940s and 1950s, fleeing hunger and poverty. Today, many children and grandchildren of these herreños have returned from overseas, the trials of migration seared into their psyches. So it is not surprising that here, among the impassable cliffs and volcanic landscape of El Hierro, a twenty-month-old African boy named Nau has encountered a fate better than Nabody’s – at least for now.

    “What surprised us most was how affectionate he was right from the start. He covered us with kisses and hugged us at least twenty times a day. It was as if he badly needed affection.” Her voice brimming with tenderness, Marisa Febles shares about Nau, whom she and her husband José Ángel took in as a foster child last December. This is what they call him, since they don’t know his real name; the toddler arrived in Tenerife in a dinghy without any relatives on board. The doctors who ran his x-ray and dental tests upon arrival estimated his age to be seventeen months. He still doesn’t speak and it is impossible to discover where he was born. Under the foster program run by the islands’ government, the Febles will be father and mother to him – and their children Nadia and Javier, his new siblings – for two years. Little Nau smiles and his enormous, almond-colored eyes light up as he devours a banana and babbles in rhythm with “Baby Shark” which he is listening to, fully absorbed, on his foster mother’s phone.

    Here in this farthest corner of Spain, on the most southwestern Canary, a place that appears isolated, rocky, and gray turns out to be warm and hospitable. Both European vacationers and migrants like Nau, who have hardly begun their lives’ journeys, have found a welcome.


    This article is based on research and interviews conducted in late March 2021 in the Canary Islands. It originally appeared in the June 2021 edition of the Revista de la Universidad de México. Translated by Coretta Thomson. Official data has been updated in the English version.

    Contributed By

    Diego Gómez Pickering is a Mexican diplomat, journalist and travel writer. He served as the Mexican Ambassador to the United Kingdom between 2013-2016, and Consul General of Mexico in New York City between 2016-2018. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Guardian, Foreign Affairs and the Huffington Post, as well as numerous other Spanish and English language publications.

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