Migrant children treated like adults as record influx overwhelms Canary Islands

By Corina Pons, Horaci Garcia and Borja Suarez

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LA LAGUNA, Spain (Reuters) – Orphaned during a coup in his homeland Guinea, teenager Moussa Camara took to sea in a wooden boat with 240 other migrants, enduring an 11-day voyage, half of it without food and fresh water, before reaching the Canary Islands.

Twenty people died en route, their bodies dropped in the sea, the travellers said, more victims of one of the world’s most perilous migrant routes.

Yet when Camara made it on Oct. 27 exhausted, famished and nursing sores from the sun, another problem beset him: police registered him as an adult and he was not allowed into a centre for minors with the better opportunities available.

“We are children … they betrayed us,” he said with a friend also classed as an adult at an old military base in Tenerife’s mountains, where some 2,000 migrants await transfers to mainland Spain or permission to go elsewhere in Europe.

Though a bone test would be required to prove his age, Red Cross papers endorse Camara’s insistence that he is 15 and not 18 as the police said, registering both him and his friend with the same birth date of Jan. 1, 2005.

Classing him as an adult means that instead of receiving extra support to find residency and education until 18, he will be required to fend for himself alone almost immediately.

The mix-up shows just how overwhelmed the Spanish archipelago is, Canary Islands president Fernando Clavijo told Reuters, after a record 32,000 migrants came so far this year.

“We have neither the resources nor the calm to deal with the avalanche coming in,” he added, blaming police for processing errors as about 100 minors a day poured into the archipelago.

Spain’s national government was washing its hands of the issue, having only offered to relocate 347 minors to other regions until December, he said.

The ministries of the interior and migration directed questions to the public prosecutor’s office.

It told Reuters it had looked into 48 cases of suspected minors at Las Raices in recent months, of which four were confirmed, 30 sent to a children’s facility pending age tests, and the other 14 still in assessment.

Fran Morenilla, a migration lawyer in the southern Spanish city of Almeria, said he was seeing a high number of minors arriving in mainland Spain who had been registered as adults in the Canary Islands.

“This is not a one-off case,” he said.


Additionally, global rights organisation Amnesty International said in a Nov. 3 report that 12 out of 29 migrants it interviewed at adult centres in the Canaries were actually minors.

For children wrongly classed as adults, the onus is on them to find a charity that can request a bone test on their behalf to determine age, a process that can take months. But Amnesty said that was unfair and such tests should only be used as a last resort if there were serious doubts and no other proof.

At Tenerife’s Las Raices adult migrants’ centre in San Cristobal de La Laguna, Camara and his friend from the voyage, 16-year-old Modou Lamin Jarju from Gambia, sat around with dozens of other west Africans. Some fishermen described how depleted stocks had forced them to leave their coastal villages.

“I just came to help my family,” said Jarju, describing his terror when supplies ran out on the boat and others died.

“I just want to go to school,” said another migrant from Gambia, 16-year-old Salaoum Colley in the forest outside the centre.

One of the most strained of the eight Canary Islands is El Hierro, its population of 9,000 more than matched by the arrival of 11,000 migrants this year.

At its largest minors’ centre on a recent day, some 300 children ate breakfast on a basketball court before Spanish lessons. The youngest was nine.

Over a weekend this month, of 500 arrivals in four boats on El Hierro, four people died and around 15 were admitted to the island’s 31-bed hospital suffering hypothermia and dehydration.

A hall and corridors were being used to accommodate patients, said nursing coordinator Amparo Morales.

Clavijo said the European Union should do more to tackle the root causes of emigration from Africa, whose population is set to double by 2050. Current policy was “to mistreat them at borders” out of sight of most Europeans, he said.

“Do you know what a mother or father has to go through to put their six-year-old or seven-year-old son in a cayuco (small wooden boat) with 200 or more people they don’t know and throw them into the open sea at night?” he said.

“These people don’t do it for fun.”

Mas Fall, 17, from Senegal, said the Canaries should brace for more young migrants like him and that the high-seas perils of the 1,450-kilometre journey to El Hierro were no deterrent.

“Many more like me will come,” he said, tentatively practicing some newly learned Spanish.

(Reporting by Corina Pons, Horaci Garcia and Borja Suarez; writing by Charlie Devereux; editing by Andrew Cawthorne)