Trapped at the age of 46 in a juvenile center in the Canary Islands | Spain

Reception center for minors in El Hierro, where a majority of adults currently reside.
Reception center for minors in El Hierro, where a majority of adults currently reside.Miguel Velasco Almendral

One of the mobiles rings in the juvenile center of El Hierro, the last Canary Island where the canoes disembark before being lost in the ocean. This time, luckily, they have not cut the wifi. Mamadou, the fictitious name of a 20-year-old Malian, is one of the boys who has offered to tell what happens in there. He starts the video call. He explains that he only has one pair of underpants that he has to wash every day in the shower, that they barely go outside and that the routine in the residence —sleep, eat, Spanish classes, eat, sleep— suffocates him. That they are punished without internet or without leaving their room if they misbehave. But his main complaint is another: “We are in a center for minors and here we are almost all adults.”

Mamadou mentions Karamokho Cissokho, a Senegalese farmer who represents the example of the absurd, although he is not the only one. The kids drag him towards the camera.

“Look at me, ma’am, do you think I’m a minor?”

On the screen you see a thin man, 1.70, with little hair and a beard. He doesn’t have many wrinkles, but he is clearly a gentleman. In his file it says that he is 17 years old, but, according to the photo of the identity document sent to EL PAÍS, he is 46. Cissokho, who left two women and four children in Senegal, has lived in that center for minors since October.

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It was he who said he was a minor when he disembarked. After six days in a canoe without eating, he assures that he was tired and confused, but that when he arrived at the center he warned his managers up to four times that he was too old to be there. “I showed the photo of my documentation and nothing. It is impossible for me to stay here, I have a family to feed”, he claims.

But Cissokho is still there. He and two other men in their 30s, one of them with a beard that occupies half his face. Almost all the others, although younger, are also adults. The minors are now around 17 years old, although in that center they have already lived with children around 14. Of the 55 current residents, 40 have declared themselves of legal age, according to the boys and technical staff. They find themselves locked in a center of a small island where they have nothing to do. They want to be transferred to Tenerife, or wherever. They want to live as adults. “Here we don’t even want to go out on the street because we have a monitor telling us that we can’t do this and that, they don’t let us talk to anyone. They treat us like children,” Mamadou complains.

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One of the immigrants, in the El Hierro juvenile center.
One of the immigrants, in the El Hierro juvenile center.Miguel Velasco Almendral

The general director of Children, Iratxe Serrano, recognizes the problem: “The entities are very competent to work with children, but not with such an important level of older people. The state would have to get more involved and, when in doubt that it is greater, it should assume it. There are hundreds of people in recent years that we cannot take care of”.

At some point, some believed that saying they were minors would benefit them, to be more careful, not to be expelled or to manage their documentation. Others didn’t even know what they were saying when they landed dehydrated. And, in many other cases, the arrival system itself, focused solely on providing clothing and food and police identification, favors confusion. Lines are made and people are separated without the certainty that they understand each other. It happens in El Hierro and on any coast.

The children of El Hierro could escape from the center, but without their physical documentation they cannot leave the island, they need the mediation of the authorities for their transfer and entry, if necessary, into a center for the elderly. And for that, according to technical personnel from the General Directorate for Minors, everyone now has to wait for the results of the age determination tests to come out, which are late. There are still 1,282 minors in the Canary Islands pending these forensic exams or their results. The Immigration Prosecutor of Tenerife, Carolina Barrio, responsible for the incidents in El Hierro, limits herself to ensuring that the situation is in the process of being resolved and that she was aware of the case a few days ago.

The presence of adults in the centers for minors in the Canary Islands —as well as the entry of children into adult centers— is one of the deficiencies that worsened in 2020 when the arrival of small boats and canoes began to increase. The system, overwhelmed, fails in this and many other aspects such as overcrowding, schooling, the processing of residence permits or the difficulties in requesting asylum, as the Ombudsman warns in a response to an individual’s complaint. The example of the center of El Hierro, which the Ombudsman visited in November, seems like a caricature and is, according to Canarian government sources, where there is a higher percentage of older people, but over the last two years cases have been repeated in all the islands. There are usually problems of coexistence, in addition to the risk, which the system has ended up assuming, of children living with adults. From a more practical point of view, moreover, adults are occupying places that are lacking for minors.

chain failures

The problem begins as soon as you disembark. The National Police that identifies each of the newcomers separates them by their age. Beyond those who tell the truth and are minors —which are the majority, according to the Prosecutor’s Office—, there are also children who declare that they are adults in order, for example, to be able to leave the islands faster and start working. And there are older people who, for fear of being expelled, among other things, maintain that they are adolescents. The agents end up acting like machines and it doesn’t matter if someone who claims to be a minor has a beard up to his chest or if a 14-year-old boy maintains that he is 20. Their word is worth it. In theory, when they come across a case that does not fit them, in one way or another, they should inform the Prosecutor’s Office, but, in practice, according to various sources linked to the protection of minors and the police themselves, they do not. make.

Upon arrival at the center for minors, those responsible should also inform the Prosecutor’s Office of the presence of people who are undoubtedly of legal age. Prosecutors point out that there is a lack of diligence and speed when informing them of these cases in order to act, but the General Directorate for Children denies this. It maintains that the centers have instructions to alert the Prosecutor’s Office and that there have been hundreds of communications that do not receive a response at the desired rate.

When the case finally reaches the Prosecutor’s Office, the alleged adult is summoned to a hearing to investigate his circumstances, request documentation and decree his majority if he considers it so, according to the Immigration Prosecutor of the province of Las Palmas, Teseida Garcia. But another problem is that at that point the interested parties have already undergone the age determination tests and the usual thing is that the result is awaited before being removed from the centers. The tests, in any case, are criticized by the scientific community for their wide margins of error.

In 2021, the Las Palmas Prosecutor’s Office, the one that has had the most work in the last two years with this matter, resolved 582 files of the 1,388 opened. 242 majorities were decreed and 238 children and adolescents were declared minors, according to their own data. 91 processes were archived due to the escape of the interested party.

In addition to this entire sequence, there is a lack of regular inspections by the Juvenile Prosecutor’s Office in the centers, according to the sources consulted.

At Unicef, which has been calling for a state-led management policy for migrant children for years, they maintain: “This is one of the consequences of a system that fails as a whole, that is underfunded and uncoordinated. And in moments of crisis it is much more evident”. The solution, warns Sara Collantes, migration specialist of the organization, cannot go through ignoring the presumption of minority declared by newcomers, but by strengthening the system. “That means, for example, reinforcing the Prosecutor’s Office or having personnel specialized in childhood when arriving at the coast.”

The center of El Hierro opened before the arrival of more boats and the collapse of the system in the rest of the islands. The situation of the protection network in the Canary Islands is at the limit and it already welcomes 2,819 kids, a record. The centers of the archipelago continue to be governed by a decree of December 2020, a rule that allows spaces to be set up in places such as a sports center, which increases the number of children served in each center and lowers the requirements to serve them as the staff ratio. It was an emergency rule, but more than a year later it is normal. The general director of Children, Iratxe Serrano, launched this week her umpteenth cry for help: “The next child who arrives will have to stay at the police station.” “That decision does not depend on me, but we do not know where to put them, the overflow is absolute,” Serrano tells EL PAÍS: “We need help, immediate help, with a stable and agile distribution mechanism. We need technical, human and material means. We can’t anymore.”

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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