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Government working with Spain on child migrants

[Senegal] Mansour, an illegal migrant from Senegal, refuses to relinquish his dream, 15 August 2006. When the Senegalese government repatriated 99 illegal migrants from the Spanish Canary Islands to the capital Dakar last May, people demonstrated in the s
Un migrant clandestin rapatrié au Sénégal de l'archipel espagnol des Canaries (Pierre Holtz/IRIN)

The Senegalese government said it is tackling the issue of child migrants, after a human rights group released a scathing report on the plight of African migrant children who have ended up in the Canary Islands.

“We have a whole lot of things in the pipeline [on this issue],” said Moustapha Ly, diplomatic adviser in charge of immigration at the Senegalese Ministry of the Interior.

He said Spain and Senegal signed an agreement dealing with unaccompanied migrant children on 5 December 2006, and Senegal is currently working with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to study the issue of child migrants.

A 26 July report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) said hundreds of unaccompanied migrant children from Africa – mostly teenagers from Senegal and Morocco – were being held in dangerous conditions in the Canary Islands, where they were beaten and left hungry.

The government of Senegal would not comment on the report when contacted by IRIN.

“We need time to study the report, up and down, left and right,” said Moustapha Ly. He said only that the government had the means to confirm or reject the information in the report because its representatives have recently been in Spain to identify Senegalese migrants. 

The HRW report, entitled Unwelcome Responsibilities: Spain’s Failure to Protect the Rights of Unaccompanied Migrant Children in the Canary Islands, said 931 migrant boys arrived on the Canary Islands after dangerous journeys in makeshift boats in 2006.

“The conditions are almost prison-like,” said Simone Troller, author of the report and children’s rights researcher with Human Rights Watch. “These children are at serious risk.”

Between 400 and 500 of them are being held in overcrowded emergency centres set up by regional authorities to deal with the surge of arrivals. They sleep in cold rooms, get only three hours of education per week, and are sometimes fed only bread and water, the report said.

One testimony from a 17-year-old boy read: “When we tell them that we are hungry, they tell us that we were starving in Senegal and should be happy to be given food at all.”

Physical abuse

The HRW report also documented scars on the bodies of the children, who said they were subjected to violence and sexual harassment by staff members. At the La Eseranza centre on the island of Tenerife, children described a “punishment cell” where they were beaten and locked up sometimes for several days at a time.

“Children described it as a filthy, windowless and airless cell of a few square metres in which ‘it was even difficult to breathe’. Children locked up in this room had to urinate and defecate on the floor as they were not allowed to go to the toilet,” the report said.

The children have no mechanism for complaints; no access to a lawyer; no process through which to file a claim for asylum; and the “most shocking thing,” Troller told IRIN, is “the pointing of fingers” between the regional authorities on the Canary Islands and the national government in Spain, with neither taking responsibility for the situation.

Explosion in West African migration

Of the 931 children who arrived in the Canary Islands, half came from Senegal, a third from Morocco, 12 percent from Mali, and the rest from other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, including Mauritania, Côte d’Ivoire and Sierra Leone.  

Irregular migration from West Africa has long been a problem, but last year saw an explosion in the numbers. In 2006, 31,863 irregular migrants arrived on the Canary Islands – one of the main points of entry to Europe – up from 4,790 the previous year, according to the government of the Canary Islands.

Driven by economic disparity, political crises, conflicts, better job opportunities or obstacles to legal migration, West Africans risk their lives in the hope of a finding better life in Europe.

“These crossings are very dangerous,” said Manuel Lopez Baumann, research and information officer in the IOM’s West and Central Africa office, adding that 7,000 people are estimated to have died trying to get to the Canary Islands in 2006.

Action to stem migration

As an increasing number of migrants depart from Senegal, efforts to combat the irregular movement from that country are significant.

In April, the IOM and the Senegalese government announced a new project funded by the European Commission that will provide training and equipment to Senegalese civil servants working on migration issues, including at border crossings; help irregular migrants return voluntarily to their country and meaningfully reinsert themselves in society; raise awareness in Senegal about the dangers of irregular migration through an information campaign; and study the legislative framework surrounding the treatment of unaccompanied child migrants to make recommendations to the governments of Senegal, and France, Spain and Italy - three of the major recipients of irregular Senegalese migrants.

In June, Spanish Minister of the Interior Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba met his Senegalese counterpart, Ousmane Ngom, to announce the creation of training schools for Senegalese interested in legally migrating to Spain. The ministers also announced that FRONTEX, the external border security agency of the European Union, will extend its surveillance work along West African coasts until July 2008. Spanish and Italian boats and planes are currently patrolling Senegalese borders.

The efforts seem to be working. So far this year, irregular migrants arriving on the Canary Islands are down to about 4,000, according to the IOM.  

Legal status issues

Despite a reduction in the numbers, irregular migrants who do arrive at their destination continue to present challenges to the receiving country, especially when they are children.

“They are stuck between the laws concerning children, which are very protective, and the laws concerning aliens, which are more repressive and less protective,” said Timon Van Lidth, law and migration specialist with the IOM. 

Once they turn 18, the migrants face a new set of challenges surrounding their illegal status in the country, he added.

Human Rights Watch insisted unaccompanied migrant children who arrive on foreign soil are entitled to special state protection and assistance.

“Even if these children have no right to remain in the country, while they are on Spanish territory the government of Spain is obliged to guarantee their full entitlements as spelled out in the Convention on the Rights of the Child,” the report said.

Among its many recommendations, HRW said the Spanish and Canary Islands governments should close the emergency centres housing the migrant children, transfer them to care centres that are “conducive to children’s well-being and development,” and investigate the reports of abuses and ill-treatment.  

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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