The British expat hosting migrants as UK tourist hotspot gripped by crisis

GRAN CANARIA – “There is the smell of death here,” says Calvin Lucock as we walk along the jetty where thousands of migrants get their first taste of Europe.

This is the quay in Arguineguin, a port town in Gran Canaria, where many of the small boats that make a perilous journey from West Africa to Spain’s Canary Islands are brought by coastguards.

As we arrive, the wrecks of three boats recently pulled up on the jetty bear witness to the latest attempts to carve out a new life by migrants from a continent fewer than 100 miles away across the Atlantic in Africa. More than 6,000 migrants never made it last year, rights group Walking Borders said, or 14 every day. Fourteen people died when a boat capsized as it was waiting for coastguards in December.

The Canary Islands are at the centre of Europe’s migration crisis, with a seven-fold increase in arrivals in the first weeks of this year.

Mr Lucock, a British former hotel executive, and his Norwegian wife Unn Tove Saetran hoped to help the migrants by launching the Fundacion Canaria Mama Africa foundation to offer aid to migrants.

During the pandemic, there was a surge in migrant arrivals to the islands but with nowhere to stay, many spent days or weeks on the quayside at Arguineguin.

A crane hoists a boat used by migrants out of the water at Los Cristianos port on the Canary Island of Tenerife (Photo: Desiree Martin / AFP)

At the time, Mr Lucock was managing director of Holiday Club Canaries, a hotel company, so he offered migrants rooms in the hotels and was initially paid by the Red Cross for about six months.

This allowed him to keep his staff on while millions of workers were forced into furlough with no holidaymakers arriving. Instead of caring for British tourists, they briefly looked after visitors who arrived in a very different way.

Later, when the Red Cross deal ended, the couple welcomed scores of migrants into three homes they own in Gran Canaria. The couple usually lived in the houses with their two children or rented them out.

The men, women and children the couple hosted have now moved on to find jobs on the islands or on the mainland.

But the migrants keep coming, with 11,704 boarding rickety boats from West Africa to reach the Canary Islands between 1 January and 15 February, compared with just 1,602 who made the journey in 2023 in the same period, the Spanish government said.

If the trend continues, the islands could receive 70,000 migrants this year, after breaking a record in 2023 with 39,910 arrivals, Canary Islands regional premier Fernando Clavijo said earlier this month.

Migrants in Spain can get permission to work six months after their application for asylum is accepted. To obtain legal residency, non-EU immigrants must live in the country for three years, prove they have had a fixed address for at least a year, show they are learning the language and have a work contract for a minimum of a year.

Mr Lucock, 51, says anyone would help when faced with people in such dire need on their doorstep.

“There is desperation to make that journey. Everyone looks for a better life. Just because someone is from Africa doesn’t mean they don’t have the same dreams as anyone else,” he told i from his house in Tauro, Gran Canaria, which had doubled as a hostel for migrants.

“I find it difficult that anyone would not want to help. If you woke up one morning and found a starving woman and a baby lying outside your door, your human instincts would make you want to help and this was on a larger scale.”

Mr Lucock, who is originally from Birmingham but who has lived in Spain since the 1990s, said he had scores of people staying in three homes they owned.

“It was chaotic, but it was a lot of fun. The vast majority are still here, working in restaurants, hotels. The one common trait was their desperation to find work, coming from nothing to find a better future. They have put their lives in their own hands to make a better life,” he said.

Apart from migrants, Arguineguin attracts north European tourists and Maspalomas, a popular holiday resort for Britons, is just 13 km (8 miles) away.

Jenny Hymoff, who runs a food distribution project in Arguineguin, said the tourists would be largely unaware of the migrant arrivals.

“British and Scandivanians are the largest groups who stay here in the winter. But they don’t know much about the migrants because they are taken away from the docks within a few hours,” she said.

Many Africans are terrified when they arrive after an arduous journey so coping with the Western world is a struggle, said Ms Saetran, 55, a restaurateur.

“Some could not understand how the water came out of the tap. In another case, the fuse went and they remained in the dark. We said, why didn’t you say something? It was a very strange world to them,” she said.

Mr Lucock said their teenage daughter was perfectly safe mixing with migrant men, but that the couple had met with racist abuse.

“There were people from our circle of friends who were genuinely caring and there were others who had very different views and who became very brave on social media. A lot of these opinions were founded in basic racism,” he added.

The couple felt they had to act. “Whether it is right or wrong that people are here is not for me to say but they are here so you have to do something,” Mr Lucock said.