Canaries migrant surge puts pressure on Spanish government

Over 16,700 migrants have reached the Canary Islands, 11 times the number that arrived in the whole of 2019
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Spain's leftist government was under fire Wednesday over its handling of a surge in migrant arrivals on the Canary Islands which has overwhelmed local authorities' capacity to house them.

Conservative opposition parties called for Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska to resign after police late on Tuesday allowed some 200 migrants to leave a camp set up in Arguineguin port on the island of Gran Canaria.

The migrants were later bussed to the capital but left there with nowhere to go, prompting heavy criticism from local officials and campaigners who accused the government of improvisation.

Rights groups say some 2,000 people have been sleeping at the port for days if not weeks, many in the rough.

During a debate in parliament, Grande-Marlaska said he had ordered an investigation into what happened and vowed to take the "necessary steps" if his ministry was found to have acted in a "uncoordinated" way.

The government said the roughly 200 migrants would be moved Wednesday from Arguineguin to the new camp set up by the military in an old weapons dump near Las Palmas, the island's capital.

The camp is made up of 23 tents which can house 200 people, the Spanish army said, posting images on Twitter of bunk-beds inside military-style canvas tents.

Over 16,700 migrants have reached the Canary Islands located off the west coast of Morocco so far this year, 11 times the number that arrived in the whole of 2019, according to interior ministry figures.

At least 500 people died in attempted crossings, according to the regional government of the archipelago which is better known as a European holiday destination.

- 'Teams exhausted' -

With reception centres filled to capacity, migrants are being housed in hotels left empty this year due to the pandemic, as well as in the Arguineguin port camp, which was only set up to process arrivals and carry out virus tests.

"A port is not an ideal place to attend to people with the dignity that they deserve," Jose Javier Sanchez of the Spanish branch of the Red Cross told AFP.

Every day the Red Cross moved 300 to 400 migrants from the port to nearby hotels, he added.

"Our teams are exhausted and are doing all that they can to provide humanitarian aid but under very complex circumstances," said Sanchez.

The interior minister earlier this month said the Arguineguin port camp would be closed "in the coming weeks" and the migrants relocated to camps set up in military sites in Las Palmas.

"We hope that the aim of these camps is not to get these people out of site," Virginia Alvarez, a migration expert with the Spanish branch of Amnesty International told AFP.

The Spanish government has been warned since September that migrant arrivals were rising in the Canaries but it waited until conditions for them were "subhuman" before it acted, she added.

- Diplomatic push -

The head of the regional government of the Canaries, Angel Victor Torres, on Wednesday called on the central government to "urgently" move migrants from the archipelago to mainland Spain in a show of "solidarity".

The archipelago has been a hotspot for migrants before -- in 2006, some 30,000 migrants managed to reach the Canary Islands before stepped-up Spanish patrols and repatriation agreements with African countries slowed the pace.

Stepping up diplomatic efforts to slow the ongoing arrival of migrants by sea, Grande-Marlaska on Friday travels to Morocco, just two days before a weekend visit to Senegal by Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya.

Spain has also pledged to tighten security around the Canary Islands, which lie around 100 kilometres (60 miles) off Morocco's western coast.

The route from western Africa to the Canaries is notoriously dangerous, but has once again become popular with migrants as authorities have cracked down on other routes to Europe.


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