The Canary Islands route: European migration policy in question

Translated by Margot Daniele, proofread by Marie Peltomaki

Situated off the north-west coasts of the African continent, the Canary Islands have been welcoming migrants since the end of summer 2020. At the time of the closing of the Gibraltar Strait, the new migratory route is catalyzing debates to be held about European management in times of the health crisis. At issue is the pact reform on migration and asylum presented by the European Commission in September.

“We are not going to transform the Canary Islands into a new Lesbos” were the exact words of the Spanish Minister of Internal Affairs, Fernando Grande-Malarska, on Antena 3 Monday 16 November 2020. A few months later, the flows were in such a way that the islands suffered their biggest migration crisis since 2016. Spain is urging the European Union to come to its aid, under the principle of solidarity.

A migration boom

These past months, the archipelago has witnessed the illegal arrival of millions of migrants coming from the African coasts. Reportedly, more than 18 000 would have arrived on Spanish soil by sea, which is ten times more than in the entire year of 2019. This increase in Atlantic influxes is related to the closing of Mediterranean routes. Morocco, Libya, and Turkey, have all three reached an agreement with the European Union (EU). The increased controls, the shutdown of Andalusian ports and the heightened surveillance of the borders, have led to hostility in the Mediterranean region.

But far more dangerous is the agitated sea which the migrants must cross to get to the Arguineguin harbor. Overbidding by smugglers, shifting winds and gusts, such is the fate of those attempting to take the risk. Five hundred of them have reportedly lost their lives. To escape the violence of the Sahel, the extreme poverty heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic, are only a few examples of the numerous reasons. These illegal migrants are testing the European migration policy, already tormented by doubt.

A redefined European migration policy

After the fire in the biggest refugee camp of Europe in September, in Moria on the island of Lesbos, came the proposal of reforming a pact that is in force since 2008: the Pact on Migration and Asylum. The principle of solidarity between member states meets the objectives of rationalizing the migration policy. Whereas in the Dublin Regulation, the responsibility of the asylum seeker was up to his/her first host country, the new proposition prefers a specialization by country. It relies on the principle of solidarity between EU members. The possibility to respect countries’ quotas is also abandoned. The project relies on the countries’ choice to become a land of refuge or a “financial sponsor” for the reception and/or return of illegal migrants to their homelands.

Apart from Europe’s necessity to rationalize the migration flows, the Commission has also banked on reinforced protection of migrants. With a pre-entry system into the EU, the Commission counts on accelerating and amplifying the procedures. The goal is to decide in advance on the migrants’ eligibility for the right of asylum. Also on the agenda: border protection to avoid push backs and the decriminalization of sea rescues.

However, there are flaws in these courses of action. It seems hardly feasible to rule in five days on applications that would have usually taken months to evaluate. Similarly, defining which country will oversee funding and which one will oversee arrivals will probably lead to heated debates.

European faults

For now, Madrid seems to tackle these mass arrivals head-on without concrete support from member states. At the end of November, the Spanish Minister of Internal Affairs and the Head of Diplomacy were deployed to Morocco and Senegal to deter potential departures and initiate the repatriation process. The principle of solidarity of the pact is of little effect if the “return policy”, that is supported by the European Commission, is favorable to sending back those whose international protection is not justified.

On November 26, a letter signed by Spain, Malta, Greece, and Italy, was sent to the EU leaders: Charles Michel (European Council) and Ursula von der Leyen (European Commission). They noted the difficulty of applying this new solidarity mechanism that they called “complex and unclear”. Meanwhile, the French Secretary of State for European Affairs, Clément Beaune, has expressed a willingness to strengthen this solidarity by supporting Spain for the returns. But what will happen in reality?

The Pact on Migration and Asylum has yet to be presented to the EU Council before being put to a vote. Described as a compromise, it allows the possibility of choice for member states to welcome migrants or not. Yet, some of the means of implementation remain unclear, and the example of the Canary Islands is a significant one. Between showing one’s solidarity and taking responsibility for the European migration policy, there seems to be a breach of the pact. Only the adoption of the pact will reveal if the principle of solidarity can tackle the lack of constraint in the European migration policy.


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