Could lessons from Canary Islands' old migrant crisis help Europe's new one?

A decade ago, migrants braved the waves to reach the Spanish islands off the African coast, but that crisis was resolved. Now, that might inform how to approach Europe's current one.

Arturo Rodriguez/AP/File
Would-be immigrants walk across Las Galletas beach, on the Canary island of Tenerife, Spain in December 2007 after a group of 59 arrived on the island. The migrants, seeking a better life in Europe, tried to reach Spain clandestinely by sailing in simple wooden fishing boats from west Africa, typically to the Canary Islands.

Far from the lush fields of banana trees in the north of Tenerife – a Spanish overseas territory off the coast of northwest Africa – is La Tejita, a sandy beach in the south of the island, where cacti protrude from the hillsides and imposing rock formations loom over sandy beaches, gray from the volcanic rock of El Teide. It was on this beach one summer in 2007 that David González Hernandez saw the boat come in.

“The boat docked and about 20 people starting walking in, others who were in better shape swam in,” says Mr. González. “Many were injured or practically dying of thirst.”

For two hours, the shocked beachgoers gave water, clothing, and first aid to help those Africans who had arrived on the southern shores of this island off the northwestern coast of Africa, home to some 880,000 people. “I had seen this sort of thing on TV but never thought it could happen here,” says González. “It had a huge impact on me.”

Before Greece or Hungary or Turkey, there were the Canary Islands. The images that stemmed from moments like that day in La Tejita – of holidaymakers in bikinis helping dozens of African men and women, thirsty and exhausted – shocked the world.

Now, images of equally disturbing proportions have come out of Greece, where an average of 2,000 people have arrived daily over the past several months primarily fleeing the war in Syria. In mid-March, Europe signed the EU-Turkey deal to relieve Greece of the migrant crisis, allowing those who arrive in Greece to be sent back to Turkey if they do not apply for asylum or if their claim is rejected.

Even though Turkey and Greece face different challenges than Spain did a decade ago, they will be looking to places like the Canary Islands – who have already successfully navigated their own migration crises – as the EU-Turkey deal goes forward. And while the current EU deal focuses on pushing migrants back home or to a third country, there are potential lessons to be learned from Spain’s efforts to keep migrants from leaving home in the first place.

The Western African route

The afternoon González describes on La Tejita was not the first nor the last time the Canary Islands would deal with migrants seeking refuge on their shores. From 2006-08, more than 50,000 people from primarily sub-Saharan Africa took pateras, medium-sized fishing boats, in groups of 50 to 150 people to the islands in hopes of reaching Europe and a better life.

The Canary Islands and Spain were wholly unprepared for the influx of migrants, says Vicente Manuel Zapata Hernández, a professor of human geography at the Universidad de La Laguna in Tenerife. “This level of immigration to the Canary Islands was unprecedented in the region at the time and far exceeded our capacity in terms of our available material and human resources,” he says.

Social worker Carlos Vázquez Alayón, who worked at the Fundación Proyecto Don Bosco for youth migrants in 2007, remembers the island’s lack of preparedness. “Centers meant for a capacity of 60 were forced to house 130 people,” he says. “The migrants burned mattresses in protest.”

But instead of financing a “push back” scheme – similar to what the EU-Turkey deal promotes – Spain approached its migrant crisis from the other end.

In 2007, the Spanish government signed a series of bilateral agreements with Senegal, Mauritania, and other transit countries to seal off the Western African route – a sea channel from northwestern Africa to the Canary Islands – as well as routes going between Ceuta and Melilla and the Spanish peninsula. It also invested heavily in maritime patrols and radar systems in those countries to detect and prevent boats from leaving home. Development aid, trade deals, and youth employment programs for the source African countries completed the package.

'Pulling back'

The result? Word slowly spread across northwest Africa about the difficulties of leaving the region and soon, fewer people were using the well-worn route to reach Europe. In 2009, the number of illegal detections on the Western African route had been reduced to 2,250, and by 2010, those numbers had dropped to 200.

“The Spanish government thought about their relationship with these countries and did things relatively quietly,” says Elizabeth Collett, the director of Migration Policy Institute Europe in Brussels. “The EU-Turkey deal is all about messaging – ‘what message do we want to send.’ ”

Spain’s “pull back” methods have garnered further appeal as the EU-Turkey deal faces criticism for its possible violation of human rights – by pushing refugees back to a third country, Turkey, and potentially denying their right to asylum and aid. In 2012, Italy faced similar criticism when the European court of human rights ruled that its methods of intercepting migrants in the Mediterranean and returning them to Libya in 2009 had violated international human rights.

Still, Ms. Collett says that neither the EU-Turkey deal nor Spain’s “pull back” methods are a perfect fix. While the EU-Turkey deal prevents people from claiming asylum, the “pull-back” method does as well, by preventing those in a dangerous situation from leaving home.

“Are you appeasing countries but limiting human rights?” she asks. “This type of plan doesn’t allow people who are truly in need of fleeing their home country to claim asylum.”

Alert for new migration

While Spain’s focus on prevention has been largely successful in recent years, it is beginning to come to terms with the herculean task of sealing off a sea route. According to EU border agency Frontex, illegal detections on the once sealed-off Western African route tripled in 2014 and 2015. The Canary Islands regional government says it is already looking at preventive measures in order to avoid a crisis similar to the one a decade ago.  

“This situation is going to get worse following the agreement between the European Union and Turkey,” says Carmen Acosta, director-general of Social Policies and Immigration within the Canary Islands’ regional government. “But we will not stand still…. We are preparing a host of protocols to be prepared in case of new arrivals, to be able to accommodate these people with dignity.”

And while the Canary Islands are better prepared in terms of material resources and social awareness than they were in 2006, they will be hoping to avoid their past mistakes. “If we have to deal with this again, we’ll be ready,” says Mr. Vázquez, the social worker. “But we’ll do things differently.”

As Europe looks to the EU-Turkey deal to help relieve Greece of the strain of its migrant crisis, it will be examining whether such “push-back” methods are effective. And while Spain’s methods of offering incentives to prevent migrants from leaving home in the first place have proven beneficial, there is still no way to stop people from fleeing war, persecution, or intense poverty in search of a better life in Europe.

"People will still try to come, you can’t stop people from wanting that,” says 19-year-old Gibril Njia, who took the Western Africa route to Tenerife himself a few years ago, leaving his home in The Gambia. “If you want something, you have to fight for it.”

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