Spanish islands struggle with migration surge amid pandemic

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Migrants from Morocco walk along the shore escorted by Spanish Police after arriving at the coast of the Canary Island, crossing the Atlantic Ocean sailing on a wooden boat on Tuesday, Oct.20, 2020. Some 1,000 migrants have spent the night again sleeping in emergency tents in a dock while authorities in the Canary Islands complain that the Spanish government keeps blocking transfers of newly arrived migrants to the mainland over coronavirus concerns. (AP Photo/Javier Bauluz)

MASPALOMAS – Rescues at sea and arrivals of flimsy boats from Africa on Spain’s Canary Islands, where local authorities are already struggling to cope with the pandemic, have strained emergency services and left hundreds of migrants stuck for days in a makeshift harbor camp.

Over 1,000 people, including women and at least three toddlers, woke up Wednesday in a dozen emergency tents set up by the Red Cross on the Gran Canaria island’s Arguineguin dock, where they were joined by some of the 300 people rescued in the early hours of the day.

The condition of the migrants, many of whom were left to sleep on the floor for days with just a blanket over them, is redoubling criticism from human rights organizations that see little progress in the government’s handling of the emergency.

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez on Wednesday acknowledged that there is “a problem of arrivals in the Canaries.” Speaking during a parliamentary debate, he said much remained to be done there.

While Mediterranean crossings are down this year, arrivals on the Canary islands across a treacherous part of the Atlantic Ocean are up nearly 700% on the year. It's the most perilous approach to Europe, having claimed more than 200 lives so far in 2020.

The Interior Ministry says more than 8,100 migrants have reached the archipelago, more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) west of the African coast, in roughly 300 boats so far this year. Despite the increase, the final 2020 figure is unlikely to match the 30,000 arrivals seen in 2006.

Spain’s government delegation in the archipelago told The Associated Press that the makeshift facilities in Arguineguin were a response to “an exceptional need, given the intensifying and increasing arrivals of migrants” and that the government was working “around the clock” to find more suitable locations.

After 72 hours under police supervision while they are being identified, new arrivals would normally be transferred to migrant centers if they qualify for deportation, or to facilities ran by non-governmental groups, especially if they apply for asylum.