African Migrants in the Canaries: Not a Drop of Water to Drink

By William J. Furney

PLAYA DEL INGLES — On a run early this morning on the subtropical island of Gran Canaria, just across a short stretch of sea from the disputed territory of Western Sahara in northwest Africa, two forlorn, dark-skinned men ambled down the deserted street towards me and crossed over to where a man was hosing down the already baked pavement with a yellow pipe, a fat stream of indulgent water pouring forth in a place where it hardly ever rains and is indeed a precious resource. 

Seconds later, the ambulatory pair were bent over and sucking from the life-giving stream — even though it’s not advised to drink public water here, for the risk of pathogens it may carry; the only potable water is that which you buy in a bottle.

Still, this early on a Saturday morning and the men were parched and in need of a drink; perhaps they had been on the go for hours. Increasingly here, people are stopped by African migrants — most from French-speaking Senegal — and asked if they have water. It’s an essential commodity that’s in short supply among the newcomers, who have been pouring into these islands in recent months after paying huge sums to people-traffickers to get across the water and not only into Europe but the European Union and all its many benefits.

Britain may have packed up and left the EU, but there are many who see the prosperous bloc of 27 nations as a desirable place to live — if they can get in. A colleague in England lamented to me this week about his plan to move to the Spanish coastal city Barcelona for a year but, being British and having no relatives in Ireland or elsewhere in the EU he might use to get an EU passport, he was unsure if he’d be able to. For British passport holders, there is now no easy access to much of the EU, or movement around it, including living and working in such popular places as Spain and France. 

People from impoverished and war-torn parts of the world are naturally drawn to relatively calm Europe, as well as for the generous provisions many European countries’ social programmes provide, such as free housing and allowances. And with such traditional migrant routes from Turkey to Greece and North Africa and across the Med and up to Italy now largely closed off, tens of thousands are using the sun-dappled Canary islands, where many wealthy northern Europeans spend the winter, to try and leap into Europe and get north to their desired location. 

Upwards of 20,000 have made the often-perilous journey from Africa to the shores of Canary islands like Gran Canaria in the last year, according to bodies like the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration, an agency of the United Nations, and not all of them made it. It’s believed that over 2,000 migrants lost their lives in rickety boats making the crossing. But the desire for a far better life far outweighs the risk of death. 

Which is why a growing number of migrants on this island are walking out of the hotels and centres housing them and sleeping out on the streets and in fields. They hear rumours that instead of being sent onwards to Madrid, the Spanish capital, or elsewhere on the mainland that’s about a three-hour flight from here, they will instead be sent back to where they came from. And they’re willing to risk almost anything, and put up with extreme discomfort, so that doesn’t happen. 

Which is why they’re asking passersby for bottles of water and slurping out of workers’ hoses.

“At the hotel, all I did was eat and sleep. At the camp, it was going to be worse, and from there they were going to send us back to Senegal,” 27-year-old Ousmane Diop told Guillermo Vega, a reporter for the El Pais newspaper in February. Diop, who arrived in Gran Canaria last October, recently left the hotel he was being housed in by the local authorities and has been sleeping rough.

Local aid agencies are giving the migrants food and clothing while some residents are staging protests at the central government’s migrant policy and others fear the Africans are behind a rise in burglary in their areas. Everywhere, there is deep suspicion about the large migrant influx. 

The government in Madrid, as well as the wider EU, while generally compassionate about the migrants’ plight, is all too aware that if they allow the many thousands of newcomers to settle in Spain or elsewhere in Europe, it would almost surely open the floodgates for many more to follow. And so most are likely to end up back where they started, having endured great hardship and a few months idling under the searing Canary sun.

  • Title image, of young Senegalese men living in a field on the Spanish island of Gran Canaria, having given up their temporary shelter, is courtesy of Javier Bauluz/El Pais. 

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