Over the last two years, the level of irregular migration from West and North Africa to Spain’s Canary Islands has surged. Between January 2020 and late October 2022, 60 427 migrants disembarked in the Canary Islands, compared to 9 520 between January 2009 and December 2019.

An unknown, but probably significant, number of migrants attempting the journey have been intercepted over the period by Moroccan, Mauritanian or Senegalese authorities, or have disappeared at sea. Available statistics for disappearances at sea demonstrate the north-west African route (also known as the Canary Islands or Atlantic route) is one of the deadliest in the world. The situation is worsening – in 2021, estimated numbers of deaths at sea on the route were double those of the previous year.

The increased use of the route is particularly striking when compared with the three other major migration routes from North Africa to Europe: the central Mediterranean route (linking Libya, Tunisia and Algeria with Italy), the western Mediterranean route (linking Morocco and Algeria with the Spanish mainland, its Mediterranean Islands and its North African enclaves) and the eastern Mediterranean route (linking Turkey with Greece). Between January 2020 and late 2022, the north-west African route grew from a zone of minimal movement to one of the busiest irregular migration routes to Europe.

The spike in the popularity of the north-west African route is not unprecedented – it echoes the 2006 surge in movement across this route, where arrivals to the Canaries exceeded 30 000, before falling sharply once more. The reasons for the recent rising popularity of the route vary, based on migrant nationalities and departure locations. However, the key driver cited by many migrants travelling on this route is the search for economic opportunity against a backdrop of declining livelihoods at home, while barriers to licit travel to Europe necessitate accessing irregular methods of movement. In turn, choices of clandestine routes hinge on accessibility, affordability, surety of arrival and safety.

COVID-19 has had an impact on all of the above, though a rise in the level of migration along the route slightly pre-dates the advent of the pandemic in North and West Africa. Efforts by governments in these countries to combat the pandemic has impacted livelihoods, altering the feasibility of mobility – particularly through air and land routes – and increasing the demand for the Canary Islands route substantially. This is particularly the case in Morocco, as migration routes across the Mediterranean become more difficult to access due to heightened surveillance and movement restrictions linked to COVID-19, as explored further below. The situation compounded the already growing difficulties of using alternative irregular routes into Europe, which have become harder and more dangerous as Europe has sought to block them.

Since the north-west African route’s resurgence in 2020, most irregular migrants and refugees have been Moroccan, departing from points in southern Morocco or Western Sahara. Large numbers of West Africans have also moved along the route, some leaving from Morocco or Moroccan-administered Western Sahara, while others embarked from beaches in Senegal or Mauritania.

This report investigates the dynamics underpinning the current use of the north-west African migration route. The first section looks at the historical context of how this route emerged, with a focus on a previous surge in migration along it in between 2005 and 2006. The following section examines current trends, embarkation zones and the operations of smuggling networks facilitating movement on this route. A brief assessment is made of economic and political drivers of irregular migration, followed by a discussion of Spanish government responses. The report ends with a conclusion and a set of recommendations.