The Canary Islands: Field Report 2021

In June 2021, a small team from AFE conducted a field visit to the Canary Islands. This report has been put together to offer a summary of the context, share our key findings and announce future plans for our response to humanitarian and political situation unfolding through the West African-Atlantic migration route.


  1. The Context

  2. Key Findings

  3. From Greece to the Canary Islands

  4. Upcoming Projects

  5. Recommended Reading

Key Facts

1. The number of people on the move arriving in Spain, and in particular the Canary Islands, significantly increased by 46%, (35,800 people in total) in 2020 compared to 2019. More here 

2. In 2020, the ‘Canary route’ accounted for 85% of all migrant deaths in Spain. More here

3. In January 2020, the Spanish Supreme court ruled that asylum seekers have the fundamental rights of freedom of movement throughout the territory of Spain. More here

The Context

What's the context?

Whilst the West African-Atlantic route has been active for decades, in 2020 a growing number of people have been arriving by boat to the Canary Islands. The sea crossing from the African coast can be as short as 100 km and up to 1500km, the strong current being the unpredictable determinant making this route the most deadly of all.

Data on the West African-Atlantic route remains scarce and incomplete. Whilst data on arrivals and intercepted boats are registered by Spanish authorities, the actual number of departures and attempts remains unknown.

The revival of this migration route is accounted for by several factors. These include economic hardship brought on by COVID-19 and lockdown measures, the increasingly closed and difficult routes through Morocco and Libya, and environmental factors such as drought in Morocco.

Known for its nature, tourism and surfing spots, the islands of Tenerife, Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria and Lanzarote have primarily been in the news over the last year and a half for the increasing number of arrivals of people on the move.

According to the Data Portal of UNHCR on the Canary route, the main nationalities arriving are from Morocco, Mali, Guinea, Senegal and the Ivory Coast. 80% of arrivals are men and 20% are children or women.

Despite the Supreme court ruling that allows applicants of international protection in Spain to move freely, throughout 2020 thousands of people on the move were held in deplorable conditions in new camps on the Canary islands before finally being allowed to travel to the mainland of Spain. With pressure from the local ombudsman earlier this year, the right to freedom of movement was applied which allowed the majority of applicants of international protection to leave the island through NGO facilitated transfers or through privately funded means.

Key Findings

In response to this rapidly changing situation, AFE decided to take a small team to one of the Canary islands, to gather information regarding the current situation from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and individuals. The team travelled to Tenerife, to piece together a well-rounded overview of the situation. As such, the below findings relate primarily to the island of Tenerife.

Tenerife's two refugee camps: what we know

Las Canteras camp is currently run by IOM, who are contracted until the end of the year. The camp is semi-structured, however, rooms are still full and crowded with up to 100 people inside. Their capacity is 1,530. This is proving to be challenging, in combination with the increase of COVID infections; there is not enough space or facilities to follow government guidelines for those who have tested positive.

Las Raíces camp is under the management of Asociación Comisión Católica Española de Migraciones (ACCEM), an organisation whose mission is to improve the living conditions for those who are vulnerable. Currently, they are hosting 1,100 individuals, with a capacity for 2,400. Currently, most of the camp residents are between 20 - 35 years old, male and travelling alone. The majority come from Morocco and Senegal.

ACCEM’s responsibility currently is to manage the camp from a logistical perspective, from sourcing food and shelter (due to the funding not being sufficient) to managing transfers to “Gran España'' - mainland Spain - in accordance with The Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This is ACCEM’s first time running a camp of this dimension. They lack experience, and they are learning as they work. This, in combination with the lack of resources, leads to further tensions within the camp.

Key challenges faced in these camps

The City Council has established that all those working in the camp must be local. However, this has led to many social workers being inexperienced, very young, and not fluent in languages other than Spanish. At the time of speaking, there were only 2 nurses and 2 lawyers in the entire camp. This meant that every staff member was working above and beyond their capacity. The lack of a common language and the shortage of interpreters means nurses, lawyers and social workers fall back on Google Translate to communicate with the residents.

Due to the uncertainty of their future and lack of understanding of the asylum-seeking process, mixed together with the poor conditions they reside in, some residents have been protesting through hunger strikes, self-harming and attempting suicide. Protests often become violent and residents sometimes threaten, harass and attack employees.

From Greece to the Canary Islands

Points of comparison between two island contexts

  1. Many people have recently been transferred to the mainland In the past weeks, many of those who were formerly stuck on the islands have moved to ‘Gran España’, following a restriction on travel to the Iberian peninsula. They’ve either done so through channels managed by Spanish NGOs, or independently. Nevertheless, in the two camps on Tenerife - Las Canteras and Las Raíces - around 2,000 people remain. Much like in Greece, this leaves the islands far emptier of refugees than they have been in a long while. Yet local NGOs and communities are predicting an increase in arrivals over the coming months, as the impact of Covid-19 wanes and late summer’s calmer waters make sea passage more viable.

  2. Despite best efforts, basic needs for some remain unmet As in Greece, whilst mechanisms for support are technically on offer ‘for all’, there are many individuals who fall through the cracks, and who struggle to access even the most basic services. This can be caused by many things: bureaucratic barriers that restrict access to services, a breakdown in trust with NGOs and public authorities, and stretched resources that simply cannot adequately meet the basic needs of all. During our time, we saw fantastic initiatives operating on all levels, but some of those working at a local grassroots level were doing particularly powerful work in supporting the most marginalised community members. These initiatives and informal community groups must be supported and respected in their efforts to reach the hardest to find.

  3. Local solidarity is strong! As in Greece, there is a strong history of solidarity and community action in support of refugee populations. During our trip, we were fortunate to meet with many inspiring individuals leading local solidarity initiatives. With a long history of migration to the Canary Islands, local leaders speak of a common history and openness to refugees. However, as we have seen in Greece, we must look to the future and support the resilience and capacity of local groups. With a new government policy focusing on camps, conditions can quickly deteriorate and the prospect of local communities hosting large numbers of displaced people can build resentment and hostility.

Upcoming AFE projects in the Canary Islands

Key needs in education

After conducting our intensive field research and needs assessment we have discovered that one of the greatest challenges that people on the move face in this region is the language barrier between them and the local community. People arrive to the Canary Islands from different countries and regions of Africa and speak a variety of languages. The lack of interpreters has been reported numerous times by NGOs and key stakeholders. Without knowing the local language newcomers are unable to communicate and express their needs to social workers, health assistants, lawyers, police officers and other locals.

Ojála! a new language learning app

To cover this need we want to support local initiatives that run educational programs and work towards building community between locals and newcomers. Our first project within this line of work is to develop a Spanish language learning app that is specific to the context so that all NGOs and social collectives can use it as a free educational tool. This app will allow students to learn Spanish from their mother-tongue languages (Arabic, Wolof, Bambara, Soninké). This app is filled with visual and auditory content so that those who are unable to read and write in their native languages can also make use of it. Moreover, this app will allow students to continue learning even if they are transferred to new locations and even if educational centres are forced to close due to COVID-19 restrictions.

We have a team of 20 highly skilled and committed volunteers: app developers and codifiers, Spanish teachers, translators, graphic designers and illustrators, actors and actresses and video editors. We believe that a language is a tool of empowerment, it increases one’s independence and ability to start a life in a new country. For this reason, we are all working to achieve a common goal: to design an educational tool that breaks the language barrier between people on the move and local communities.

Recommended Reading

This report aims to provide a short, direct perspective on the situation in the Canary Islands following AFE’s visit. There are many more resources available online. Here’s a short recommended reading list:

Migración en Canarias, la emergencia previsible (Spanish only), CEAR, March 2021

The Canary islands are full of immigrants… (newspaper, Spanish), April 2021

Data Portal, Spain, UNHCR, ongoing

La migración en Canarias, Spanish National Ombudsman, 2021


Country Report Spain, Aida Asylum Information Database, 2020

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