By DAHLIA: At the end of April 2021, team from CDAC-member DAHLIA visited the Canary Islands to understand the information and communication needs of migrants arriving on the Spanish archipelago located off the coast of Africa. The number of migrants, mostly undocumented, arriving irregularly on the Canary Islands last year was more than five times higher than in 2018 and 2019 total combined. The impact of COVID-19 and the resulting travel restrictions in north and sub-Saharan Africa have pushed many people to embark on this dangerous journey.
The start of DAHLIA’s mission coincided with the discovery of a boat found drifting off the coast of the Canary Islands with the bodies of 24 migrants and 3 survivors on board. Another 36 were missing, their bodies having been submerged by the ocean a few hours before help arrived. The crossing, which is at least 100km, is particularly treacherous due to the strong currents and rough seas. The boats are often overloaded and in poor condition. Last year, at least 1,851 people lost their lives while attempting to reach the Canary Islands according to the NGO Caminando Fronteras, which monitors these migrations.
In this type of crisis, it is essential to set up operational mechanisms to inform and communicate with this migrant population in the framework of the humanitarian assistance provided. In the present crisis, we have seen that this need is recognised by the actors in the response but that it constitutes an unresolved challenge. Indeed, in order to better understand the communication behaviours, the mechanisms in place and priority information needs of migrants, the DAHLIA team met and interviewed migrants, NGO members, civil society organisations, lawyers and local political actors. The aim of the research was to understand the strategy in place to meet the information needs of migrants, to identify good practices and identify possible gaps. Our approach was intended to be constructive and transparent so that local response actors could utilise our expertise in their work.
The institutional response to the current situation is based on the so-called Plan Canarias. Once they arrive in the Canary Islands, migrants are placed under the jurisdiction of the Spanish Government, which decides on the criteria for diversion to the mainland. This is the top priority for the vast majority of migrants. In our various interviews, stakeholders reported a general perception of violations of migrants' rights in all areas, including inadequate information at the point of entry and in accommodation services, insufficient legal support, lack of adequate translation and excessive delays in procedures. Responders regret that the messages to migrants and host communities lack clarity and consistency. This sense of chaos is accentuated by the lack of translators at the various reception points and, when they are present, by the lack of trust in the translators by the migrants. The direct consequence of this situation is that migrants lose trust in aid agencies and local authorities.
Despite the recurrence of the migration phenomenon in the Canary Islands, accountability to affected populations (AAP) is fundamentally absent from the culture of many organisations involved in the response. Only IOM has mentioned and implemented measures to include community engagement and feedback from migrants in the management of the site for which it is responsible. In many cases, we have seen that for migrants the raising of complaints is felt to be a risk. They fear that their complaints will lead to reprisals that could affect their chances of being transferred to the mainland in the future. Migrants and stakeholders highlighted the lack of minimum standards and a form of inequality of standards in the different migrant reception sites. These differences can be seen in the quality of food and accommodation, access to WASH, provision of health services, access to information and social networks, etc. Unfortunately, the DAHLIA team did not receive permission to visit these reception centres, with the exception of Cruz Blanca. One of the reasons for the weak response is the lack of clear leadership and the absence of coordination mechanisms. This has led to a feeling of rejection of the aid provided and a sense of frustration.
The assessment found that there was a clear need to put in place coordination mechanisms, particularly at the level of communication and information strategy, in order to meet communication needs and develop a clear communication policy with adequate tools. This coordination should encourage transparency at the institutional level, which should provide clear information about deportations, transfers to the mainland, and the rules applicable in each case. The response actors should draw on the experience of IOM and IFRC to put in place a genuine AAP policy. Furthermore, it is essential to put in place a communication strategy directed towards the host population, emphasising the rights-based approach and the low conflict nature of the current process.
Since our mission the Government has relaxed its policy on the transfer of migrants arriving irregularly in the Canary Islands. The migrants’ transfer to the mainland undertaken by the Ministry of Inclusion, Social Security and Migration has been activated on only an ad hoc basis, while criteria for referrals remains unknown, and many have been rejected at the embarkment gates in different airports and boat access gates. However, the fact is many of the arrivals have either been transferred to the mainland or deported (about 5,000 migrants remain on the islands, from 30,000 arrivals in 2020). Deportations have been halted for a long time due to the closure of Morocco's airspace with Spain and France for health reasons. The opacity of the government on this issue also makes it impossible to know exactly where the flights are going and from which countries the returnees come. However, the flow of arrivals is far from slowing down. Last weekend alone, 19-20 June 2021, almost 200 people arrived on the islands on seven different boats, including 38 minors.