From Lesbos to Arguineguín

The last time we received a message from Clàudia was in June 2014. She said that she was on the Greek island of Lesbos, all day lying on the sand with her partner, reading and sunbathing. He also said that the island was pleasant, but that on the way back to the hostel, at noon, there were always people with faces of misery who wandered silently among the olive trees. When asked about them, the hostel waiter was uncomfortable. Many of the people they saw were fugitives from the civil war in Syria, complicated by an extraordinary drought. Western inaction had allowed Bashar al-Assad to turn the country into a prison where bloody battles were fought between the regime and opposition militias.

In the early years of the war, which started in 2011, people fled to Europe by land, across the border between Turkey and Greece. But there came a time when the Greeks blocked their way and those who fled were forced to try their luck by sea, on a route in which Lesbos had a leading role: it was the largest island closest to the Turkish coast. The route, in the end, turned out to be very dangerous and many people left their lives on it. All that history, the forced exodus of a million Syrians and the refusal of Europeans to take them in, later became known as the Refugee Crisis, from which the continent came out rather badly. Only Angela Merkel rose to the occasion and she risked prestige and power by hosting an important part of that mass of desperate people.

The Canary Islands have experienced a migratory crisis in recent days that could explode coexistence on islands that are highly dependent on today’s fragile tourism business

In 2015, a year after Clàudia’s message, the European authorities opened on the island what they called a “
”, A reception and registration center for immigrants. This place was called Moria, after a small village north of Mytilene, the capital of the island. There they stored people waiting for Europe to claim them. But since that did not happen, the field, designed first for 3,000 people, ended up hosting 20,000. The attitude of the local population went from being cautiously friendly to openly hostile. Then came the pandemic. And in the end someone set fire to the field. Perhaps because he thought that that way, in some office, they would realize that they had been abandoned there for years, sleeping in tents among mountains of rubbish and dead from cold or heat. Or maybe it was someone who no longer tolerated the presence of more refugees. Actually, everyone wanted to shut down Moria …

The people who have been arriving in Arguineguín, in the southwest of Gran Canaria in recent weeks, are not fleeing a great war like the one in Syria. They escape small wars and societies without a future. They are leaving because of climate change, which is making it increasingly difficult to live in many of those countries. Africa is the only continent that has not made the demographic transition (it has very high fertility rates). For these two reasons, climate change and demographics, the flow of desperate young people in transit from Africa to Europe will not end for long.

In 2006, the Canary Islands experienced the ‘cayuco crisis’ but then there was no improvisation and the immigrants moved to the peninsula

The Canaries are islands that live off tourism. A tourism that was first only sun and beach, but later recycled to become one of the places that the European middle classes choose to escape when it is cold. In Gran Canaria there are no olive groves to go to find firewood or olives. There is only aridity and volcanic rock. And like the rest of the islands of the archipelago, it is relatively close to the coast of Mauritania and Western Sahara (about 900 kilometers), which is where the cayucos now transported by Guineans, Malians, Senegalese and especially many Maghrebis.

Since the beginning of the year, more than 16,000 African immigrants have reached the islands, and another 500 have drowned in a journey that lasts between five and six days. The arrival rate has accelerated (until October they were 8,000). And the reactivation of this migration route has led to situations such as Arguineguín, a small fishermen’s wharf where more than 2,000 people are being held in terrible conditions.

In 2006, the Canary Islands experienced what became known as the crisis of the cayucos. That year, 35,000 people came to the islands. Most were sub-Saharan Africans fleeing conflict. The difference now is that half of those who travel by boat are Moroccans who escape from the paralyzed tourism sector. In that crisis, the authorities were very quick to disperse those who were arriving to the peninsula. Now they have acted without any foresight and the Interior Ministry refuses to move them, under pressure from the European Union, which only prescribes returns to the countries of origin (something difficult to do in times of virus). In 2006, the authorities built specific facilities. Now, a part of the immigrants (the most fortunate) are accommodated in hotels and tourist apartments, a decision that has angered a part of the sector and the population, very hostile towards the newcomers.

In the five years since the construction of the Moria camp to Arguineguín, Europe has had a hard time drawing lessons from the migration crisis

In the five years since the construction of the Moria camp to Arguineguín, Europe has had a hard time drawing lessons from the migration crisis. The mediocre evolution of the economy first and Covid later are bad scenarios to keep a cool head. What has been consolidated in this time has been the populist discourse, which is nourished by the rejection of immigrants and which in countries like Hungary and Poland has led to governments that have turned their backs on the rule of law.

There are those who blame Morocco for the reactivation of the Canarian front. It’s possible. But while diplomacy tries to solve it, Arguineguín, or any other improvised mousetrap, can explode the Canaries just as Moria, which had to be the solution, ended up being the end of an orderly policy of immigration management in Europe.

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