Risking it all for a better life: Canary Islands see a dramatic rise in number of migrants arriving by sea

Unsteady on their feet but alive, migrants shuffle onto the dock at the port in Arguineguin, Gran Canaria.

They have arrived on Spanish rescue boats after being plucked from the sea.

Others are taken away on stretchers to hospital, weakened to the point of collapse by a lack of food and exposure to the elements.

The number of migrants arriving by the Atlantic route to the Canary Islands is increasing dramatically.

With other ways into Europe closed due to COVID-19, many of them believe they have no choice but to risk everything.

And for many, getting to the EU by this route from West Africa is a matter of life and death.

According to the International Organisation for Migration, at least one in every 16 people dies attempting the crossing.

In the town of Puerto Rico we meet Ousman, from The Gambia, who tells me he arrived in Gran Canaria a month ago.

He shows me video of the flimsy boat he took from Senegal.

Ousman paid €2,000 (£1,779) to board the unseaworthy vessel, which was packed with people, for the weeklong, 60-mile journey across dangerous seas.

He said: “I’m sacrificing my life to cross the sea to be here. It is very risky. The boat have a lot of people, many people. Somebody dead, somebody sick.”

Ousman is now hoping to build a better life and thinks he’ll be welcomed into Europe: “I come here to try and get work. Our country nothing going on. Our country we didn’t have food, nothing… Africa is very, very, very, very hard.”

The volcanic archipelago of the Canary Islands is increasingly being seen by many migrants, fleeing political and economic instability in Africa, as the most viable gateway into Europe.

They come from Mali, The Gambia, Senegal and Morocco.

All are young men in search of work and a better future.

Almost 17,000 migrants have arrived in the last year, with more than half arriving in the last month – 10 times more than the year before.

The authorities here though don’t have the resources to deal with the problem, which is getting worse every day.

Some of the migrants are taken to makeshift camps, where they wait to be processed, living in basic conditions.

Others are staying in the empty hotels that dot the islands – coronavirus has decimated the tourism economy – where they wait to find out what happens next.

The president of the Cabildo of Gran Canaria, Antonio Morales Mendez, says the European Union and the Spanish government must do more.

The Canary Islands, he says, should not become a holding camp for asylum seekers trying to reach the EU.

“These people have to reach Spain – they don’t want to stay, they don’t want to be here on an island because they are running from difficult personal situations aggravated by the pandemic.

“They are looking to reach the continent so the Spanish government must move them inside its borders, from the canaries to the peninsula.

“That’s what we demand, that’s we are so angry.”

But at the port, more migrants are arriving all the time – they hold placards demanding their human rights.

Their hope is this will just be the first stop on a journey which will end when they live and work in Europe.

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