Migrant arrivals putting pressure on Spain's Canary Islands

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African migrants after arriving at the coast of Gran Canaria island, Spain on Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020. Crossing the Atlantic Ocean sailing on a wooden boat, a group of 44 migrants arrived at Maspalomas beach. (AP Photo/Javier Bauluz)

MADRID – Spanish rescue services have located 1,300 migrants in four days in the Atlantic Ocean and transferred them to the southern Canary Islands, further straining local emergency response capabilities as makeshift military camps for the newcomers were being readied.

The latest to arrive were 27 men from northern Africa who were picked up from the high seas early Monday, Spain’s Maritime Rescue Service told The Associated Press, adding to the 1,275 people found from Friday to Sunday aboard 42 boats.

More than half of the 16,000 migrants who arrived this year in the Spanish islands off northwest Africa did so in the last four weeks, a sharp influx worrying international and non-profit organizations.

That’s compared to around 1,500 arrivals recorded last year in the archipelago, better known for its vacation resorts popular among northern Europeans.

Officials from the U.N. refugee and migration agencies were visiting the islands this week to assess the crisis, which the IOM and UNCHR agencies said has been fueled by people fleeing violence in the Sahel region or the Ivory Coast, extreme poverty, climate change and the coronavirus pandemic.

“The COVID-19 context poses an additional challenge, taking into account the profiles and special vulnerability of some newcomers, including women, girls and boys, some unaccompanied, victims of trafficking or people in need of international protection,” a joint statement from the two agencies said Monday.

The government has halted all but a few transfers of the migrants from the archipelago to mainland Spain, a decision that high-ranking officials from the Foreign Ministry have justified in private as part of the government’s “zero tolerance” toward migrants who don’t qualify for legal work or asylum.

But that has led to a concentration of people on some of the islands, especially at a dock on the southwestern coast of Gran Canaria island, where a steady number of 2,000 people have been spending night after night on hard concrete and under Red Cross tents.