We are making people sick. Instead of welcoming them, of healing them, Spain sickens the migrants who arrive at our southern border. How? With a disastrous reception, with a lack of information and alternatives and with insufficient medical and psychological care that undermines their mental health every day. We have institutionalized the violation of the rights of migrants and, particularly, as Doctors of the World has been able to observe, of the right to health of those who access Europe through the Canary Islands or Melilla. It is a chronic ineffectiveness, with no surprise factor. Migration crises always catch us in a bathing suit, receiving other tourists, with our homework undone.
A host that makes you sick
Makha arrived in Tenerife after an eight-day journey, cooking in the boat and throwing the dead into the sea. The last job he had in his country was as a fisherman, but they had been out fishing for a long time and the boats came back empty. “They have stolen even the sea from us,” he explains. So he took one of those boats and came to find his life.
In a developed country, with a stubborn and unequal border, it is to be expected that at least the reception conditions given to people who come exhausted from a dangerous journey are worthy. Error. It is not that they are not dignified, it is that they are such that many migrants prefer to abandon their resources and live on the streets.
What social health conditions do people who have come to our country and who live in a host resort face? They eat poorly, the food is often insufficient or directly inedible, as many migrants denounce in the different macrocamps of the Plan Canarias. In some cases, such as in the hotels enabled during the pandemic in the south of Tenerife, they ate three sandwiches a day: morning, afternoon and night. Raise your hand whoever has been away from home and hasn’t visited the bathroom in days. This diet results in constipation, stomach pain, diarrhea, vomiting. You can protest the food, many have, but the answer is: there you have the door.
To sleep? “Just out of sheer exhaustion,” a young Moroccan tells us. Have you been to the beach on the canvas of a hammock and needed to get up after a while due to back pain? Thousands of migrants sleep on mats suspended from two irons, one above the other, with no space to sit even for months. The overcrowding of the tents they share makes the night a continuous tumult of voices, lack of space, permanent insomnia because the physical and mental conditions of the guests hurt and wake up. Insomnia, headaches, back pain, scabies outbreaks.
Will they at least be clean? Younes, a young Moroccan who has gone through various resources, says that he got some boxer shorts and pants after weeks in Spain. In most of the macrocamps in the Canary Islands, each one washes their own clothes with a little shampoo and waits for them to dry, often without a change of change. The showers and toilets are insufficient, there are long lines to shower with cold water and not once or twice have sewage flooded the sinks. The tents set up at V Pino in Melilla exceeded all limits of what is humanly tolerable and generated a very high risk of public health: three bathrooms and a shower for more than 200 people who were not properly cleaned or disinfected and an inadequate sewage system, that seeped into the tents where the migrants slept. Unhealthy as a rule. Fungi, chilblains, dermatological diseases.
It is clear that the welcome we give to our migrant neighbors makes them sick. And do we cure them later? Well, health care is insufficient and there is a clear under-endowment of human resources. There are centers such as Las Raices in Tenerife that have two doctors for 1,700 people, totally overwhelmed – and with serious difficulties in finding nursing staff due to the pressure of care. There have been other resources with only 2 hours a week of health care, such as hotels enabled on the islands. Thus, on too many occasions, care is delayed for several weeks and even months, with the consequent risk to the health of these people.
In addition, one of the most serious problems that we have detected is the misinformation they suffer regarding their state of health. Many people do not receive their reports and if they do, they do so without any translation or explanation. It should be added the lack of interpreters or translators. Yet another violation.
Last but not least, it is worth noting the current pandemic situation, which has also affected the health of the migrants who have reached the Southern Border. On many occasions, the pandemic has meant a reduction in their rights. How do you keep your distance in a crowded center? Are the 1,700 people you live with your bubble? A young Senegalese man tells us in perfect Spanish that he chained more than two months of quarantines in a center on the island of El Hierro. When an isolation ended, a new boat arrived, and it started all over again.
These conditions are not the answer to a migration crisis, it is a crisis of the reception system.
A battered mental health
When Mohamed, a 17-year-old boy with dreadlocks and a dazed look, disembarked from the boat that brought him to the Canary Islands, he spent two days without knowing if he was still at sea or not, in a state of semi-consciousness. But what about mental health? That it is still a taboo subject, that we keep it to ourselves, that we are afraid of being treated as crazy, so Mohamed did not say anything.
The general deterioration that we have been able to observe in the mental health of the people who arrive at the Southern Border is frankly alarming. These people feel frustrated at not knowing how to find their bearings: how long will they be in the resource where they live, how to manage the papers they need, etc. With no sociocultural and educational activities to do, they ruminate on their thoughts over and over again throughout the day. It hurts them the burden of being stranded here without being able to work and send some money to their families, which is what they have come for, and on the contrary, having to depend on asking for help from their relatives to be able to survive in a center or in the be quiet one more day.
The decline in his mental health leads to the abuse of psychotropics to calm down and be able to fall asleep. We have observed self-harm and suicide attempts. Not seeing the meaning of a confinement without alternatives, without information to understand the context, waiting for nothing. To all questions, for an answer: tomorrow. And tomorrow never comes.
After a hard day’s work with kids who live on the streets, a young Senegalese follows us to the car to ask us for something he doesn’t want his colleagues to hear: a knee cream, a pain caused by running. It may seem like an eccentricity in the midst of so much pain, but it is an act full of resilience and dignity, not feeling pain doing the only thing that keeps you on your feet. Run, escape.
The alternative: the street
The alternative to all the diseases caused by the Spanish and European reception system is the street. An already sick place. It is the only option that hundreds and hundreds of people have found to host abuse.
Younes hides his shyness under a thread of voice and his integrity behind a concrete wall in an open field of Gran Canaria, where he has lived for too many weeks. To live on the streets of Las Palmas, he bailed water from the patera where it came, with carafes cut in half, for six days. Younes says that the sea equals us in the face of death, but that what he found when he arrived here was much worse. He assures that each step of the migration process since he arrived in Spain has been worse than the previous one.
Now it is sheltered in an unbuilt lot, where to access it you have to jump over the wall that surrounds it. Stuck with two friends in a construction container in an area at risk of a mountain slide, they spent days without eating, showering and drinking until a neighbor saw Younes asking for water on the street. Now this neighbor, Samuel, with his mileurista salary, makes the three young men eat once a day, washes their clothes once a week and invites them to an ice cream without having to speak the same language.
And that’s the most humane response we’ve ever seen in this research on the health of migrants: the neighbors who arrive where the Administration does not. Organized by a WhatsApp group, cooking at home for two or three more people daily. Taking care of them with dignity until the end. That is why Manuela brings a bouquet of flowers every week to 15 bodies that lie in the Agüimes cemetery. 15 people who lost their lives trying to make it better. “As long as I live, these neighbors will not lack fresh flowers and a prayer,” he says.