With the forgotten migrants of the Canary Islands

Abandoned boats (pateras et cayucos), used for the migratory journey, at the Arguineguín dock in Gran Canaria ©SaraPrestianni

This Friday, 18 December 2020, marks 20 years since the United Nations established International Migrants Day commemorating the adoption, in 1990, of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. It has been 30 years since European Union (EU) Member States have continued to ignore this text, which only seeks to recognise that all migrants are entitled to equal protection of all their fundamental rights. 

Migrants, including women and children, disembarking at the Arguineguín dock in Gran Canaria, 5 December 2020 ©SaraPrestianni

Locked up far from sight 


The migrants are then transferred to the military camp of ‘Barranco Seco’, which has been transformed into a “Temporary Reception Centre” (CATE – Centro de Atención Temporal de Extranjeros). This camp is located in an isolated, hidden and difficulttoreach place, since it is 10km from the centre of the capital, Las Palmas, and seems to have been placed there to escape the scrutiny of the press and civil society. Members of the national and European parliaments have been denied access to the camp, and on 4 December 2020 they were denied entry, despite the fact that their status entitles them to visit any place of detention on European soil.  


Frontex, the Spanish Red Cross and police authorities carrying out checks at the Arguineguín dock in Gran Canaria ©ElenaBizzi

This procedure, already in place in the Canary Islands and inspired by the Greek (Moria camp in particular) and Italian (Lampedusa camps) models, appears to be the outline of the security vision of “pre-screening” camps that the European Union wishes to apply in the framework of its new Pact on Migration and Asylum.   


A future of uncertainty 


After this period of time, the only possible way out for migrants is almost always with an administrative document written in Spanish – a language not always understood by the people concerned – informing them that they are about to be deported. They are then directed to emergency reception centres – mainly run by the Red Cross – in fact empty hotels scattered around the islands, to be placed in quarantine for a fortnight.  

Migrants being transferred from the Arguineguín dock to the Barranco Seco military camp ©SaraPrestianni

The Spanish state does not officially carry out any transfers to the peninsula. However, it does let those with passports go, even if they are subject to an expulsion order. The few who manage to obtain a pass are also allowed to leave.

Since November 2020, 80% of arrivals in the Canary Islands have been Moroccan citizens. If they arrive with a passport and have enough money to finance their transfer, they can leave the island fairly quickly. For the others, those without passports and without money, i.e. the most vulnerable, who generally come from Senegal and Mali, the only possibility left is to remain on the island without prospects. In mid-December there were nearly 10,000 of them, including 2,000 minors. 

Identification and screening procedures in the Barranco Seco CATE ©ElenaBizzi

On 18 December 2020, no one can no longer ignore the fact that, in Europe, the protection of borders takes precedence over the rights of migrants. As proof of this, EuroMed Rights publishes today a photographic report from a recent mission to the Canary Islands. 



The Canaries, first entry point to Europe

for many Africans 


Since August 2020, more than 21,000 people have disembarked on these distant shores of the European Union. At the beginning of December 2020, the EuroMed Rights team in charge of this mission attended a rescue and disembarkation operation in the port of Arguinéguin, on the island of Gran Canaria: 130 people – including women and children – joined the hundreds of people who had been present for several months on this same island.   

Since the very recent closure of the Arguinéguin camp, the procedure now in place upon their arrival in the port provides for an initial identification on the quayside by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) and a medical diagnosis by the Spanish Red Cross. 

A child disembarked at the Arguineguín dock in Gran Canaria ©ElenaBizzi


More than 800 people are currently parked at Barranco Seco. The risks linked to the effects of overcrowding, in particular COVID-19 contamination, are very high in this camp whose conditions are more akin to a prison than a reception centre. Theoretically, information on the possibilities of access to asylum is given to migrants upon arrival, but it was impossible to verify this.  

In principle, in this camp, migrants are not supposed to stay more than 72 hours. During this period, the Agency Frontex assists the Spanish police in identity control procedures (identification, fingerprinting, screening and debriefing with their Spanish counterparts).

Migrants undergoing first identification and medical checks at the Arguineguín dock in Gran Canaria ©SaraPrestianni



Due to local pressure and the discontent of part of the population of the Canary Islands, the Spanish government decided to stop using hotels since 1st January 2020 and to authorise six camps, currently under construction in three of the Canary Islands, which should reach a capacity of 7,000 people. These camps, financed in part by the EU Asylum and Migration Fund, should be located in peripheral and isolated areas, mainly in military barracks or camps on the sites of ‘Canarias50’ in Gran Canaria and ‘Las Raices‘ in Fuerteventura.  

After their quarantine the migrants are therefore free to stay or leave their hotels, but in any case, they will be obliged to do so from January 2021 when they will be automatically transferred to the new camps under construction. If they have applied for asylum, they will be transferred to reception centres run by local associations. 


Migrants held in the CATE (Centro de Atención Temporal de Extranjeros) built in the Barranco Seco military camp ©ElenaBizzi

Blackmailing the countries of departure 


Since the beginning of this increase in arrivals in the Canary Islands, the response of the EU and Spain has been to put pressure on the countries of departure and origin to try to increase returns. This is the case of Mauritania, which, as a result, not only accepts the return of Mauritanian citizens but also of those who have left the Mauritanian shores. Similar discussions are underway with Senegal. 

This is the subject of discussions with Morocco, for whom the EU is threatening to block the issue of visas, thus further reducing the legal channels of access to European territory.  

The forms and intensity of this “blackmail” targeting the Canary Islands appears to be a “trial run” or even an in vivo test of the European Pact on Migration and Asylum and its objective to develop negative return/visa conditionality. On the other hand, like what was observed with Tunisia in August 2020 and Turkey in March of the same year, Morocco does not hesitate to use these departures of emigrants to try to better negotiate geopolitical and economic issues with the EU. 

One of the new camps built at the León school, in the neighbourhood of El Lasso, in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria ©SaraPrestianni

Photographs : Sara Prestianni & Elena Bizzi