‘No one can stop them’: African migrants target Spain’s Canary Islands

  • The Canary Islands, an increasingly popular migration route
  • Arriving Africans remember the horrors of the sea voyage
  • Numbers rise as war in Ukraine worsens world hunger

GRAN CANARIA, Aug 11 (Reuters) – Standing in a graveyard of abandoned boats, Mohamed Fane picks up a West African franc from the ground and shivers at the traumatic memory of his journey from Senegal to the Canary Islands.

After an arduous overland journey and months of waiting, smugglers ferried the 33-year-old carpenter in a flimsy wooden boat with two dozen others to sail from the Moroccan city of Dakhla – but he ran out of fuel far from the Spanish archipelago.

A starving and thirsty man died on board, while a Spanish lifeboat rescued the others. Fane, who barely ate in three days at sea and used his water bottle to bail out the leaking boat, cried like never before when he reached Gran Canaria.

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“It’s the hardest thing that’s ever happened to me, I would never repeat that,” he said.

Such horrific experiences are commonplace on one of the busiest and most perilous roads to Europe for Africans fleeing poverty, conflict and hunger accentuated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the effect of war training in Ukraine.

Two-thirds of African migrants entering Spain now pass through the Canary Islands, according to government data. Some 9,589 people have arrived there so far in 2022, a 27% increase on the same period last year.

On a map, the seven islands are just pinpricks in the vast Atlantic off West Africa. The fishermen guide the precarious boats with often inadequate engines. Many get lost or sink.

At least 1,000 people have died in these waters so far this year, according to the charity Walking Borders, with the tens of thousands of European tourists flocking to the Canaries largely unaware of the tragedies unfolding so close to their holidays .

“There is panic among Africans after the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and inflation, because they are very dependent on food from outside,” said Sukeina Ndiaye, head of a support network for migrants on the island of Tenerife.

“I fear many others will take the risk.”


Another who did just that was fisherman Elhadji Diouf: he took a boat with 67 other people from southern Senegal that ended up on a beach in Tenerife six days later. He said he honored his father’s wish for the family to escape the poverty caused by their increasingly scarce catch due to industrial-scale fishing.

Sometimes, he said, migrants lose their minds after grueling journeys from the interior of Africa and then scorching days on the open sea. “Some people can’t stand it and jump into the sea. The boat cannot turn or stop to avoid capsizing, so it is impossible to rescue them.”

Dehydration, seasickness and hypothermia are common.

Yet with the short route through the Strait of Gibraltar and other routes to southern Europe across the Mediterranean better patrolled, the Canary Islands are an increasingly popular choice for desperate migrants despite the dangers.

Morocco has stemmed its flow under an agreement with Spain, but many still come from Mali, Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and the Nigeria, according to activists.

In a report this week on the booming Canary Islands migration route, the United Nations said 150 boat drivers were arrested last year, but the criminal gangs behind them on the African coast were rarely targeted.

Many deaths go unnoticed, he added, noting that boats often take circuitous routes to avoid search and rescue areas and mobile phone networks, but can then be caught in strong currents carrying them towards the Caribbean.

Numbers may increase with calmer waters from September.

“Nobody can stop them,” Fane said on the island of Gran Canaria where colorful, abandoned migrant boats contain worn-out shoes, sardine cans, plastic bottles and a life jacket.

“I am losing hope in my continent, Africa. What is happening forces you to leave (…) I have heard people say that arriving here almost dead is better than staying in Africa.”

On the same day, the Spanish rescue services were looking for a boat lost at sea off Mauritania with 100 people reported on board. A few days later, another boat was rescued with 61 people near the island: a 19-year-old boy was found dead on board.

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Written by Corina Pons and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Jane Merriman

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