A surge in the number of migrants making the treacherous journey from West Africa to the Spanish Canary Islands is straining local authorities, with human rights groups warning that many child migrants are being wrongly classed as adults by Spanish police, putting them at increased risk.
So far this year, more than 32,000 migrants have arrived on the Canary Islands from West Africa - the highest number since 2006.
Fifteen-year-old Moussa Camara was orphaned following the 2021 coup in his home country of Guinea. He chose to escape, spending 11 days at sea in a wooden boat on the treacherous journey from Senegal to the Spanish island of Tenerife, along with 240 other migrants. For half that time, he had no food or water. Twenty people died on that crossing, he says, their bodies tossed over the side of the boat.
Bearing sores from the sun, famished and dehydrated, Camara eventually arrived on Tenerife on October 27, 2021. But his ordeal was not over. Spanish authorities classified Camara and his friend as adults rather than children, meaning they were not allowed to stay at a center for minors or access the better opportunities available to those under 18.
"At the center, we said we were fifteen years old. But they didn’t write that - they took us as if we were adults. But we are children, we are children - but they sent us here. They brought our papers. They betrayed us," Camara told Reuters.
Spanish police sent the two boys to Las Raices, an old military base in Tenerife's mountains, where around 2,000 adult migrants await transfers to the mainland of Spain.
In a recent investigation, the human rights group Amnesty International interviewed 29 migrants on the Canary Islands. The group says 12 of them were under 18 years old but had been incorrectly classified as adults and were being held at adult detention centers, in breach of Spanish and international refugee laws.
"This is very concerning because they were along with adults they weren’t related to and without the protection of the authorities. We were talking with one girl, she was 17, and she was detained for three days with men and women in a place without any oversight by the authorities. She was sleeping on the floor. And no one was asking about her needs," said Amnesty’s Virginia Alvarez, who travelled to Tenerife and El Hierro between October 25 and 28.
The child migrants often had their belongings, including mobile phones, confiscated by the police. Most were not told of their legal rights, according to Alvarez.
"If they are treated as adults, they can be expelled to their countries of origin. They are also leaving (state) protection. Sometimes they are transferred to the mainland and they are without protection, they are alone as minors in Spain or maybe they can travel to other European countries," Alvarez said.
A bone test is required to prove a migrant’s age but these can take months to arrange. Child migrants are given extra support to find residency and education until they reach 18 years old. However, if they are classified as adults, they receive little government help.
Local authorities say Spain’s central government isn’t doing enough to help.
"They have left us with 4,700 minors, with NGOs and resources saturated, with difficulties because the screening of who is a minor and who is not a minor is not being done - it is taking at least three, four months. And you have adults in center for minors and minors in centers for adults. So, we have this difficulty," said Fernando Clavijo, the president of the Canary Islands regional government.
He said the European Union should do more to tackle the root causes of emigration from Africa.
"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? These people don't do it for fun," Clavijo told Reuters.
Amnesty International is calling on the Spanish government and the European Union to make sure that child migrants are properly screened and to provide safer routes for refugees.
The Spanish Public Prosecutor's office told Reuters on November 14 that it had looked into 48 cases of suspected minors at the Las Raices camp in Tenerife. Of those migrants, four were confirmed as children, 30 were sent to a children's facility pending age tests, and the other 14 were still in assessment.