GRAN CANARIA, SPAIN - DECEMBER 06: Migrants men from Morocco relax on a park bench on December 06, 2020 in Puerto Rico de Gran Canaria, Gran Canaria, Spain. The influx of migrants making the perilous 100KM crossing from the African mainland to the Canary Islands has increased in 2020 with nearly 20,000 this year alone, with around 600 people losing their lives. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)


‘Irregular migration’ to Canary Islands spikes by 1,000 per cent


The number of “irregular” migrants arriving at Spain’s Canary Islands jumped by more than 1,000 per cent during January 2024 as compared with a year before, according to Spain’s interior ministry.

With 7,270 such migrants reaching the Canary Islands over January this year, the pace then increased further with more than 1,000 arriving in three days at the start of February, Spain’s Government said on February 5.

That led Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to visit Mauritania on February 8 and offer the African country’s Government more than €210 million to curtail the departures.

That mirrors Von der Leyen’s move, seen as controversial by some, with Tunisia in July 2023 where she offered the Government there €105 million to reduce migration.

MEPs said that deal made the European Union complicit in Tunisia’s allegedly abusive treatment of sub-Saharan migrants. The European Ombudsman gave the EC until February 29 to clarify the deal’s human-rights “safeguards”.

Bashir Fatehi, an immigration manager with the UK’s Surrey County Council, told Brussels Signal that crossing the Atlantic to the Canary Islands was “one of the most dangerous migration routes due to its unpredictable weather, strong currents, and long distances without rescue services”.

The majority of the migrants are apparently from Senegal and Mauritania. They ususally land in El Hierro, the most western territory of the Canaries.

Senegal’s political instability and jobs crisis are pushing migrants out, many say, while traffickers use the route to “dodge” Moroccan and Mauritanian security patrols.

Many migrants “embark on the journey in overcrowded boats that are ill-equipped for the voyage”, added Fatehi.

Irregular migrants taking the route, whose number reached a record high of 40,000 in 2023, face “risk of drowning, exploitation by traffickers, and abuse”, he said.

Moreover, smugglers “adapt to changing migration policies and border enforcement by the EU and African governments”, noted Fatehi.

They shift their operations to what appear less monitored routes – with the Atlantic path to the Canary Islands being a recent example.

Spanish journalist Ignacio Cembrero said: “Never have so many migrants arrived in Spain in such a short time – 11,000 since January 1; never has Spain taken in more migrants arriving by sea than all the Mediterranean countries combined.”

Previous spikes in irregular immigration to Spain have been followed by surges in support for the hard-right Spanish Vox party, especially in the areas attracting the largest numbers of those migrants.

In the 2019 general elections, Ceuta – a Spanish port city on the North coast of Africa – became a Vox stronghold, with 35.29 per cent of the local vote. Vox won 20.39 per cent in Andalucia, the Southern Spanish region with the highest number of “unaccompanied foreign minors”.

Von der Leyen said the EC’s €210 million in fresh pledges to Mauritania would help its Government create “opportunities’ for employment there and crack down on human traffickers.

At the same time, a succession of military coups that took power in Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea and, in July 2023, Niger, have appeared unwilling to take EU cash to suppress migration.

On November 27, Niger’s military Government said it was revoking a 2015 law criminalising human traffickers.

Before the coup there, the EU had offered Niger more than €503 million in funding to help it seize and dismantle traffickers’ bases of operations in the country’s North.

Von der Leyen said in 2023 that the EU’s deal with Tunisia could be a “blueprint” for similar agreements elsewhere in Africa, including Egypt and Morocco.

These deals could, say others, end up playing into the hands of local opponents of Europe.

With France retreating from the Sahel region, Russia has been quick to fan anti-colonial sentiment towards Europe and offer military juntas assistance from the mercenaries of the Wagner group.

UK charity Statewatch said in September the EU migration accord contributed to the unpopularity of Niger’s deposed president Mohamed Bazoum – and deprived army officers of a lucrative source of bribes from human traffickers.