Illegal migrants begin their dangerous journey to the Canary Islands from Africa’s Sahara

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Although it is currently the most dangerous migration route, in recent months, more and more people have set out to reach Spain’s Canary Islands. The 500-kilometer-long journey from Africa to the Canary Islands begins in the Sahara, where human smugglers are hiding boats long the coast to evade security services, according to Czech news portal

The Czech news portal cites a report from the Associated Press involving an AP reporter and photographer waiting until after dark to join people smugglers in Dakhla, Western Sahara, as they drove inland from the busy port. The driver, followed by a vehicle with a fixer, passes a police checkpoint with no problems. At a certain point, he turns off the highway into a dark, seemingly endless desert.

The smuggler only briefly checks the coordinates on his mobile phone. Obviously, this is not the first time he has been making this journey. In the middle of the dunes, under a star-strewn sky, there is a white tent from which a young man involved in the business of building boats for people smuggling climbs out. He has been building a boat here for several days while remaining hidden from security forces. He charges 20,000 dirhams (about €1,649) for per boat.

The boat lie hidden under the sand, ready to make the journey west. The men jump out of the cars and start digging. In a few minutes, they uncover a wooden boat with a blue-painted keel that can carry 20 to 30 people. The men quickly pull the boat to the roof of the jeep and prepare to return.

At that moment, their boss receives a warning on his mobile phone that the police are nearby. In a short while, the barge is buried in the sand again, and the cars return to the port. A police patrol stops them along the way but finds no sign of people smuggling.

Manuevering through the desert represents only the first stage of migrants’ voyages from the West African coast to the Canary Islands, which, according to the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex), is the most dangerous migration route today.

According to official records, more than 600 people drowned on the route last year, and another 350 are still missing. Nevertheless, more and more migrants are setting out on it.

Although last year saw the lowest number of illegal migrants in the past seven years arrive in Europe, the Canary Islands have reported a record influx, according to Frontex statistics. Last year, 22,600 people landed there, eight times more than the previous year.

Migrants depart from Gambia, Mauritania, Guinea, and Western Sahara, which is controlled by Morocco. Their starting point is mainly the busy port of Dakhla, located about 500 kilometers south of the Canary Islands.

While in the past, mainly migrants from sub-Saharan Africa embarked on the journey, in recent months, half of them are Moroccans. The coronavirus pandemic has hit the North African tourism industry hard, and thousands of people are out of work.

One of the inhabitants of Dakhla, who makes a living from people smuggling, stated that he organizes about one journey a week. Allegedly, his rivals organize up to ten departures a week. However, half of the attempts fail even before migrants begin their journey.

Migrants pay $2,000 (€1,646) to reach the Canary Islands, which is not a small sum in Morocco where the average worker earns a few hundred dollars a month.

The trip to the Canary Islands usually takes four days. Migrants take with them almost no food and a minimum of water. The archipelago experienced the biggest influx of migrants in the last four months of 2020, prompting a debate in Spain about the migrant influx that has grown increasingly intense. 

Hundreds of the migrants first stayed in an improvised camp in the port of Arguineguín on the island of Gran Canaria where many slept on the ground, which prompted authorities to evacuate after a wave of criticism from humanitarian organizations. However, the relocation of some migrants to Andalusia and Valencia on the mainland also caused resentment among locals.

Authorities proposed using hotels as a temporary solution as they were empty due to the coronavirus crisis. German and English tourists in luxury resorts were thus replaced by young men from Senegal, Mali, Morocco, and Guinea. However, local mayors voiced their opposition to this solution. According to them, the tourism industry cannot deal with issues that the state should be handling, which currently pays over €300,000 a day to accommodate migrants on the Canary Islands. 

Meanwhile, the Spanish government has deployed diplomats to West African countries, trying to persuade local authorities to suppress the migration route. Morocco, for example, claims to have prevented 10,000 migrants from leaving last year and accepts those deported from Spain.

However, hundreds and thousands more are still preparing for the journey to Europe.

Title image: Smugglers lift onto a vehicle a fishing boat intended to be used to transport migrants to the Canary Islands, in a remote desert out of the town of Dakhla in Morocco-administered Western Sahara, Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020. Beneath a star-packed sky in the Sahara, smugglers and handymen unearth a boat buried in the sand, a made-to-order vessel for carrying migrants from the North African coast to Spain’s Canary Islands. (AP Photo/Mosa’ab Elshamy)

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