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Stuck In Canary Islands, Migrants Fear What Comes Next

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The economy of the Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago in the Atlantic, depends on tourists. But as the pandemic halted global travel, 2020 brought a different wave of visitors - a surge of African migrants. And some tourists aren't OK with that. Sophie Eastaugh has this report from Gran Canaria.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES CRASHING)

SOPHIE EASTAUGH, BYLINE: At this time of year, beach resorts in the Canary Islands would usually be packed with European tourists. Now they're nearly empty. Tom Smulders is from the Canary Islands hotel federation.

TOM SMULDERS: We should have an occupancy of over 90%. At this very moment, only 5% is occupied.

EASTAUGH: Some feel it's not just down to COVID restrictions. Derek Atkinson from England is one of the few people soaking up the sun.

DEREK ATKINSON: Everybody's sending messages back home. The refugees are everywhere, and it's frightening, intimidating. I've got friends that live up here. They're moving.

EASTAUGH: Tony Bates from Wales agrees.

TONY BATES: A lot of people that we know are saying they will not come back until the migrants are gone 'cause of what they're hearing about people being intimidated and threatened.

EASTAUGH: They're talking about the 23,000 migrants and asylum seekers who arrived on these islands last year, an eightfold increase that caught Spanish authorities unprepared to accommodate them. Empty hotels became a temporary but controversial solution.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

EASTAUGH: At a four-star hotel up the road, young men from Mali, Morocco and Senegal are playing draughts on the terrace. For Calvin Lucock and his wife, Unn Tove Saetran, opening their hotel to migrants was a business decision. Their staff faced unemployment.

CALVIN LUCOCK: We were apprehensive.

UNN TOVE SAETRAN: Maybe a little bit scared.

LUCOCK: We didn't know who was arriving. We didn't know how their behavior would be. But when you see them get off the bus and you see the fear in their eyes, that quickly evaporates.

EASTAUGH: Over the last six months, around 1,500 men, women and children have passed through the hotel, some fleeing conflict, others desperate for a better life. For the couple, it's been...

LUCOCK: Life-changing. From cold, frightened young men that first arrive to spending now months knowing them as people as opposed to the term that everybody gives them, immigrants. First, they're individuals. They have a name. They have dreams, just wanting a chance of life.

EASTAUGH: Lucock and Saetran have tried to make their guests feel safe and welcome - listening to their stories, organizing activities and offering the help of their lawyer. Assane Top is one of the guests. It took him eight days to get here by boat from Senegal, a risky journey across a thousand miles of Atlantic Ocean.

ASSANE TOP: (Through interpreter) Even though there isn't a war in Senegal, we were starving. We ate just one meal a day.

EASTAUGH: Top says he barely scraped a living as a fisherman. And as his parents get older, coming to Europe was the only way to support them. But after four months with no information, he's struggling. And he knows the locals don't want him here.

TOP: (Through interpreter) Every day, you think - will I be sent back today or tomorrow? That would be a disaster for us. We don't want to go home with nothing to show our parents.

EASTAUGH: Giving coronavirus as the reason, Spain's socialist government has stopped even documented migrants from travelling to the mainland. They're moving the migrants from hotels to six new camps on the islands from which most will face deportation. Tom Smulders is hopeful that the government's action will help tourism bounce back.

SMULDERS: We're a perfect destination, an island in the sun. And I think by the time people will start to come and visit us again, 90% of the migrants will be away.

EASTAUGH: For NPR News, I'm Sophie Eastaugh in the Canary Islands. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.