A total of 56,852 migrants entered Spain illegally last year
A total of 56,852 migrants entered Spain illegally last year. AFP

The number of migrants arriving illegally in Spain soared by over 80 percent in 2023, with a record number landing in the Canary Islands, official figures showed Wednesday.

The influx has strained resources in the seven-island Atlantic archipelago and pushed migration to the top of the political agenda in Spain, which along with Italy and Greece is a key entry point for migrants seeking a better life in Europe.

A total of 56,852 migrants entered Spain illegally last year, an 82.1 percent jump from 2022 and the most since 2018 when 64,298 migrants entered the country, according to provisional interior ministry figures.

The bulk of them, 39,910, arrived by boat in the Canaries after making the perilous crossing from Africa, an increase of 154.5 percent over last year and surpassing the record number set in 2006.

With controls tightening in the Mediterranean, the Canaries route has become a favourite for people fleeing poverty and conflict in Africa, mostly on overcrowded, barely seaworthy vessels.

Boats -- often long wooden fishing vessels known as pirogues -- depart from Morocco, as well as Mauritania, Gambia and Senegal further south.

The journey from Senegal to the Canaries usually takes a week of difficult upwind sailing of around 1,600 kilometres (1,000 miles).

Newscasts regularly open with images of Red Cross officials and local doctors attending to newly arrived migrants wrapped in thermal blankets at ports in the Canaries, which has called for more help from Spain's central government and the European Union.

The archipelago has especially struggled to deal with the over 4,000 unaccompanied migrant children who have arrived, with many housed with adults due to a lack of places in shelters for minors.

Spain's minister for migration, Elma Saiz, said Tuesday during a visit to the Canaries that the central government was working on a law to distribute these minors across Spain, a reform she said was "pertinent".

The central government in October pledged an aid package worth 50 million euros ($54 million) to help the archipelago.

The Atlantic migration route to the Canary Islands is one of the world's deadliest.

More than 7,800 people died or went missing at sea en route to the archipelago between 2018 and 2022, according to Spanish NGO Caminando Fronteras, which helps migrant boats in distress and the families of those who have gone missing.

To avoid controls, smugglers take longer more dangerous journeys, navigating west into the open Atlantic before turning north to the Canaries -- a detour that brings many to the tiny westernmost El Hierro island which experienced an unprecedented surge in arrivals last year.

Local officials in El Hierro have likened the increasing numbers to conditions on Lampedusa, the small Italian island in the Mediterranean that has long been a transit point for migrants heading for Europe.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez last month hailed an agreement to reform the European Union's migration laws, saying it was key to his nation's ability to better manage arrivals and its border.

The package includes speedier vetting of irregular arrivals, creating border detention centres and accelerating deportation for rejected asylum applicants.

Faced with the surge in arrivals, Madrid has stepped up its cooperation with Senegal and Mauritania to try to stop boats from leaving for the Canaries.

Senegalese President Macky Sall in November ordered emergency measures be taken to halt growing numbers of migrants leaving the West African country in small boats headed for Europe.