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Canary Islands (Spain): A gateway re-opens: the growing popularity of the Atlantic route

Countries: Canary Islands (Spain), Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Senegal, Spain, World
Source: Mixed Migration Centre

Please refer to the attached files.

Researched and written by: Jessamy Garver-Affeldt and Mackenzie Seaman

Key findings

This study is based on the reports of refugees, migrants and key informants, and the analysis and synthesis of the Mixed Migration Centre. It does not reflect the opinions of the implementing research partners.

The research for this paper was undertaken with the intention of rapidly bringing together information and analysis related to the Atlantic route towards the Canary Islands from the coast of West Africa, in the context of an increase in departures and arrivals to the Canary Islands since late 2019. It is based on interviews with 46 refugees and migrants and 16 key informants in the Canary Islands, Mali, Mauritania, and Senegal between 11 November and 17 December 2020. It seeks to improve understanding of the motivations of refugees and migrants for taking this route, as well as of the risks and challenges they face en route, including in their experiences of interception and forced return. The following key findings emerged from the MMC’s analysis and synthesis of interviews with refugees and migrants, key informants, and a review of secondary literature:

  • In 2020 the Atlantic route saw a sharp increase in use by refugees and migrants for a range of reasons. Some relate to the characteristics of the route itself, such as the perception that it is a relatively short and direct way into Europe. Others pertain to the Covid-19 pandemic, for instance unfounded rumors that the high number of coronavirus deaths in Europe has boosted demand for labor. At the same time, as the route’s popularity grows, information spreads through social networks, with the model of peers who have “gone before” appearing to generate momentum.

  • Decisions to migrate are overwhelmingly influenced by a range of inter-related contextual factors: poverty and lack of opportunities, family expectations, the need to provide. These factors are not new and are likely to endure.

  • Recent Spanish visits to Mauritania and Senegal appear to have placed an emphasis on the security dimension of cooperation regarding irregular migration. This is observed both in public discourse focusing on disrupting criminal networks and in terms of material assistance of police equipment and support to patrolling through boats, aircraft, and personnel. This security approach does not seem to address economic and social imperatives that underlie Senegal’s continuing high pressures for migration.

  • Efforts to increase legal migration routes, such as through establishing paths for circular migration, are more in sync with the demand and underlying migration motivations in Senegal. Legal migration paths have been limited, and a recent measure to reward legal migration through establishing portability of social security rights does not extend them. However, recent discussions to build on Spain’s pilot circular migration scheme are welcome, and such initiatives should be explored and expanded further.

  • The shortcomings of the screening and reception process for arrivals in the Canary Islands mean that refugees and migrants have limited information about and less effective access to protection avenues, especially in the case of children and asylum-seekers. As Spain seeks to ramp up deportations from the Canary Islands again, there is a risk that people eligible for protection will be among those deported. Particular attention must be paid to ensuring that this does not occur.

  • The deportation of third country nationals from the Canary Islands to Mauritania has a legal basis in a readmission agreement signed in 2003. However, according to key informants, there does not appear to be a clear mechanism in place to ensure that deportees have met the criteria for return. Nor does there seem to be oversight or accompaniment of the process by which deportees from the Canary Islands are expelled from Mauritania. Refugees and migrants returned to Senegal and Mali and are left at the respective borders without further support. Many of the deportees in 2020 have been Malians, which raises concerns due to UNHCR’s Position on Returns to Mali (Update II) which prohibits returning Malians from eight regions and four administrative districts.

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