ArticleEstudios Fronterizos, vol. 16, no. 32, 2015, 11-40

The necessity of reconceptualizing the migration of unaccompanied minors to the Canary Islands of Spain

La necesaria reconceptualización de las migraciones de menores no acompañados en Canarias, España

Esther Torrado Martín–Palomino *

* Universidad de La Laguna, Departamento de Sociología y Antropología, Instituto Universitario de Estudios de las Mujeres. Tenerife, Spain. Address: Campus Central, Facultad de Educación Módulo B, 38200 San Cristóbal de la Laguna.

Received: August 19, 2014.
Approved on: February 12, 2015

[Original article language: Spanish]


The migration of unaccompanied foreign minors (menores extranjeros no acompañados, MENA) represents a new model for international mobility in Spain, one with its own particularities compared with other migratory flows. The dual nature of being unaccompanied and unauthorized leads to conflicts in the care and integration of these new migrants. However, this dual nature is one of the main prerequisites for the development of this mobility model (but not the only one) and for developing strategies specific to this group. The Canary Islands, because of their position on the southern intercontinental border and their insularity, offer particular models of individual migration flows of primarily highly vulnerable African children and a close relationship with human smuggling and trafficking networks.

Keywords: unaccompanied foreign minors, smuggling and trafficking in human beings, clandestinity, vulnerability.


Las migraciones de menores extranjeros no acompañados (MENA) son un novedoso modelo de movilidad internacional en España, con particularidades respecto a otros flujos migratorios. La doble condición de menor no acompañado e irregular, genera conflictos en su atención e integración, pero es una de las premisas principales para el desarrollo de este modelo de movilidad (que no la única) y el desarrollo de sus propias estrategias. Canarias, debido a su condición de frontera sur intercontinental y su insularidad, ofrece modelos de flujos migratorios particulares, protagonizados por menores africanos con una alta vulnerabilidad y una estrecha relación con las redes de tráfico y trata de seres humanos.

Palabras clave: menor extranjero no acompañado, tráfico y trata de seres humanos, clandestinidad, vulnerabilidad.


Migration of minors in Spain has always existed, although it has primarily been connected to family re–unification projects. Starting at the end of the 1990s, other models for international movement of minors begin to be detected; these models were characterized by clandestine border crossings without the company of a guardian or adult who could represent the minor. Such migrations are known as migrations of foreign unaccompanied minors (from here onward, MENA, its initials in Spanish). This type of migration, which was practically non–existent at the beginning of the 1990s and exhibited a very homogenous profile (males of Moroccan origin), started to proliferate during the first decade of the twenty–first century; such flows increased in terms of both the number and variability of profiles (boys and girls from Eastern Europe and Africa). Similarly, variability in routes is observed, with the main routes being from Africa towards Andalusia and the Canary Islands and from Eastern Europe towards the Northern and Central areas of the peninsula. With this increase in MENA flows, there is more interest in studying this phenomenon among different social disciplines (sociology, anthropology, philosophy, law, and politics) because the variability of profiles and new mobility models exhibit clear differences from other types of traditional migration into Spain. This change has also forced the State to establish urgent measures for legal protections and to assist and provide aid and care to minors.

This article intends to analyze and identify the scenarios in which MENA migrations occur in Spain, in particular, the Canary Islands. It also investigates MENA migration's particular characteristics compared with traditional migration or other migration models that involve minors (re–unified minors, second generations or minor children of immigrants in countries of origin) by visualizing the nature of their migratory projects and strategies for entering the territory (with differential costs and outcomes that depend on age, origin and gender). Moreover, the study analyzes some of the causes of the proliferation of this type of migration, including the adaptive response of migrant people and groups to European border–closing policies, the child protection system, and the influence of information and communication technologies (ICT). This study analyzes the most common socio–demographic profiles and the relationships between increased migrant flow and the social constructs regarding the concept of minors that the societies of origin and receiving societies possess. This analysis yields social and migration policy models and specific strategies for minors and their families.2 It is clear that there are differences in this construct between countries of origin and receiving countries because many of these minors have played adult roles before undergoing processes of international mobilization and also because this concept has changed in the age of globalization, with increased consumption, social differences between countries and the influences of ICT. These differences lead to a "mirror effect" in which minors project themselves, seeing migration as the only feasible method of improving their living conditions.

Migration results in new rites of passage from childhood to adulthood. These rites are different from the traditional rites in the communities of origin and thus should have a notable impact on social and family structures. Regardless of whether they have an agenda, these minors design their own survival strategies (individually, with a group of peers, or with adult migration networks). These realities can be observed in the Canary Island archipelago, which constitutes a real and novel opportunity to witness the quadruple vulnerabilities of unaccompanied minors: their age, their clandestine situation, their close contact with human trafficking and smuggling networks, and the danger of maritime routes traveled in unfit vessels.

This specificity and importance of the Canary Islands territory in receiving migrations of minors has been recognized by international human rights organizations (Human Rights Watch, Red Cross, Amnesty International, and Unicef). Because the islands are on the southern boundary of Europe, because of their proximity to the African continent, and because of the difference in standards of living, this island territory generates a series of scenarios and contexts that are quite new for transnational mobility models. The migration can be analyzed in two stages. The first one was led by males who migrated at the end of the 1990s, mostly from southern Morocco, and travelled in small boats known as "pateras".3 Their main destinations were the eastern islands of Fuerteventura and Lanzarote. The second stage was led by minors from sub–Saharan Africa (with the presence of women, although they are a minority) who traveled in canoes from western Africa (mainly from Senegal). The motivations, routes, and projects of the protagonists of the first stage are well known, given the proliferation of well–informed studies that document them (Human Rights Watch, 2002; Jiménez, 2003). In contrast, and in spite of significant changes in their mobility patterns, routes and migratory projects, the protagonists of the second stage are unknown (Human Rights Watch, 2007). What is certain is that these travelers share an intimate relationship with human trafficking and smuggling networks, which in the case of girls is mainly for the purpose of sexual exploitation (Torrado, 2012).

This study is the result of analyzing a variety of secondary and bibliographic sources regarding the migration of foreign unaccompanied minors into Spain, in particular, the Canary Islands. For the latter aspect of the analysis, this study utilizes research regarding unauthorized migration to Tenerife (Godenau and Zapata, 2007), a study of MENA in the Canary Islands (Barroso, et al., 2006), and a study of MENA migration from a gender perspective (Torrado and González, 2009). Each of these sources used similar research methodologies that were based on combination and triangulation of techniques.4

Foreign unaccompanied minors and the difficult balance between protection and expulsion

MENA migration in Spain has been historically understood from the viewpoint of traditional migration analysis and as a result of family strategies led mainly by adult male providers. However, without overlooking the influence of family socialization on migration processes, one also cannot ignore the perspective of the youths themselves as migratory actors and occasionally as autonomous subjects with their own strategies and decisions regarding the act of migrating. These minors exhibit some differences from other migrants, in spite of participating and interacting in the same mobility processes through institutions, networks, structures and dynamics centered on friendship, kinship or shared geographical origins. One of these differences is the minors' inability to circumscribe the general pattern of international migrations (Suárez, 2004). Another issue is understanding the features derived from strategies specific to minors; these strategies help one to consider and treat MENA differently, as new and significant protagonists in international migration who have heterogeneous profiles, whose rites of passage to adulthood are represented by mobility processes fostered by globalization, and who significantly influence their family, intergenerational and gender structures.

Serving these minors in destination societies presents significant legal and assistance–related peculiarities compared with other clandestine migrants. These peculiarities derive from the MENA concept itself, with its extreme condition of being legal subjects and under control. This double conceptualization results in a type of double social evaluation: as victims of the system (who therefore should be protected) and as criminalized subjects because of their administrative irregularity and economic vulnerability (who therefore must be repressed, pursued or expelled). This bipolar nature proceeds from two different enforcement frameworks that apply to them, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (Naciones Unidas [United Nations], 1989) and Constitutional Law 4/2000 of January 11, 2000 on the "Rights and freedoms of foreigners in Spain and their social integration" (2000).5 However, these minors exhibit models defined by their clandestine movement across international borders and their own capacities to develop survival strategies in the face of the challenges and difficulties posed by the societies to which they migrate (Giménez and Suarez, 2001).

Another feature that has evoked interest in the study of MENAs is the difficulty of quantifying them, which results from their clandestine characteristics and the model of assistance developed in Spain, in which assistance and protection responsibilities were transferred to Autonomous Communities. These communities, in turn, have developed multiple and varied models for management, assistance and gathering of statistical data. Additionally, the many different and novel clandestine migration routes6 (which are a result of the specialization of mafias, the weakness of the border, deficits in border enforcement systems, and access to ICT) have made these islands hot spots for unauthorized smuggling of merchandise, for which humans (especially minors) are very lucrative commodities. The islands exhibit a MENA mobility model that is different from those of other territories in Spain because it is characterized by minors coming exclusively from Africa that are transported and smuggled in dangerous vessels, which makes the procedures of quantification and characterization quite complex.7

MENAs' motivations for migration stem from their vulnerable situations in their countries of origin and their need to obtain income to survive, i.e., their motivations are mostly centered on economic components, as indicated by Gimeno (2013). However, for girls, as noted by Torrado (2012), there are motivations of a different nature, such as seeking autonomy and an escape from strict patriarchal norms. Regardless, in both cases, migration constitutes a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood, given the scope of the action of migrating, the danger, and the responsibility involved in assuming the responsibilities of an adult. These are migrations that frequently pose ethical dilemmas for the destination societies because of the conflict between the concept of minors (who are to be protected) and the social objectionability of clandestine migrations (who must be pursued and expelled).8

Some studies connect these migrations to family migration strategies or the influence of previous migration experiences (which is not entirely accurate); these factors may have an influence, but they are not decisive. Other studies analyze the lack of planning in structured migration projects, which arises from how the decision to migrate is made, i.e., often "behind the backs" of one's family or under the influence of a group of peers (because of a mix of adventure, curiosity and need). The choice is then an improvised and autonomous decision (Capdevilla and Ferrer, 2003, 2004; Ramírez and Jiménez, 2005; General Observation no. 6, 2005).9

To cross the intercontinental border that separates Africa from the Canary Islands, migrants must plan their project (the route, transportation and trip) and must necessarily have enough personal and financial resources to undertake it.10 Unauthorized access to island territory requires boarding a maritime vessel after payment in cash or in kind. Consequently, age, health, and family or social support are essential resources when facing the difficult trips from inside the African continent (which are made by foot, in buses or trucks) to obtain spots on the vessels controlled by clandestine smuggling networks.

In these migration cases, girls are a minority and remain less visible to border enforcement. The fact that they come from very patriarchal families leads to greater control of their mobility. Those who migrate do it under conditions of considerable vulnerability and invisibility as a result of the modus operandi of clandestine transport methods between borders and the types of industries where these girls end up (domestic work, agriculture, and prostitution).

When these migrations began to proliferate in the Canaries, there was a certain tendency to analyze them as homogeneous mobility models. It is true that they share many characteristics with migrants that reach the peninsula (minors, unauthorized, unaccompanied, mostly of male gender and with economically motivated migration projects), but they exhibit differences in terms of their origin, routes, migration costs and relationships to borders. Regarding the analysis of differences in clandestine child migrations and their relationships with borders, we have found studies that were performed in one of the most widely studied migration settings: the southern Mexican border. In these studies, unique typologies that transcend the traditional analysis of migration studies are established; these typologies feature interesting and novel relationships between minors and borders, irregularity, survival and unauthorized labor markets (Ramírez, 2005).

Migrations of foreign unaccompanied minors in the Spanish context: peculiarities of the Canary Islands

In the Spanish context, these migrations are favored by a range of sociopolitical, economic and ethical features, such as restrictive immigration policies in the European Union (with the resulting enforcement and closing of borders), economic developmentalism, the stark intercontinental differences in living standards, and the no–less–influential ethical concept in our society of what it means to be a minor.

Current European immigration policies may have generated a certain disincentive toward adult migrations from countries that do not belong to the European community. This is because as controls are tightened, they hinder access to the territory, limit migrants' stays, and provide minimal legal guarantees. As a result, migrations of minors can be explained partly as a collective adaptive strategy by families and a response to these laws regarding foreigners and border closing policies. Families therefore attempt to minimize migration costs and risks and maximize collective benefits by selecting a minor as the option with the highest chance of success because minors have the greatest possibility of remaining in the destination country (if they are able to reach the border alive, even if unauthorized). This choice is based on the criterion of strength (they are healthy young people), which is an essential characteristic for facing the tough trip, and it makes these minors the carriers of hope for improvements and subsistence of their clan (with the psychological burden and risks that this conveys). However, since they have appeared, these migrations have become parts of all European policy agendas, with greater legal commitments and efforts to protect these migrants. Simultaneously, there are significant deficits in terms of providing them assistance, which is characterized by slow and ineffective management and even inappropriate repatriations as a result of not having effective State protection (Jiménez, 2003).11

When analyzing the history of MENA migrations in Spain, two stages stand out. The first one (which corresponds to the last decade of the twentieth century) is characterized by a "trickling" migration of minors of African origin who arrived in unauthorized fashion and mostly on the coasts of Andalusia. These were males who came from Moroccan urban areas, were of working age or younger, had low education levels and were from families in vulnerable economic situations (Giménez, 2003; Giménez and Suárez, 2001; Suárez, 2004). These migrants crossed borders secretly as stowaways in ships, trucks, buses or small vessels named "pateras". They had hardly any contact with human trafficking and smuggling networks because their migrations were mostly autonomous or spontaneous migrations that did not require excessive planning. In this stage, there was greater overlap between the socio–demographic profiles and migration projects of MENA into the Canary Islands and those of the rest of the Spanish territory. This is no longer the case in the second stage (which corresponds to the first decade of the twenty first century), when greater variability in profiles and routes, with significant arrival rates on the coasts of the Canary Islands, became evident. This increased rate of arrivals to the Canary Islands was a result of the strong border pressure on the coasts of Andalusia and the resulting change in strategy of the migrants and trafficking networks, who opted to explore intercontinental maritime routes (in spite of greater distance and danger). There were changes in terms of the number of arrivals of minors that came from the Sahel and the Magreb in large vessels known as "cayucos", and these migrations were closely related with human smuggling networks. This stage represents the start of smuggled MENA migrations, which are characterized by the lack of autonomy of their actors and the necessity of planning their actions. Access to a fragmented territory, such as the Canary Islands, with intercontinental maritime borders requires support and material means to achieve a degree of success and minimize the risks and difficulties of these routes. Another novelty is the presence of female minors, who, although they share characteristics with male MENA (unauthorized and unaccompanied minors), exhibit strong differences in terms of their origin (they are mostly from the Sahel), the nature of their projects (they have not only an economic focus but also seek freedom from the patriarchal norms of their places of origin), their higher migration costs (longer routes in terms of distance and time and being the objects of multiple violent acts), and their different migration outcomes because they are objects of human trafficking at the origin, during the journey, and at their destination, mostly for the purpose of sexual exploitation (Rojo, 2008).12

It can be observed that although in the first stage there were clear similarities among Autonomous Communities in terms of socio–demographic, economic and family variables, motivations and migration expectations (Giménez, 2003; Giménez and Suárez, 2001; Suárez, 2004), this is currently not the case because, in the Canary Islands, migration is exclusively by "small boat" and thus via smugglers. Moreover, the migrants exhibit heterogeneous profiles, despite primarily coming from Africa (Morocco, Nigeria, Mali and Senegal), and more variety in entry routes (Fuerteventura, Lanzarote, Gran Canarias, Tenerife, La Gomera, La Palma and El Hierro).

Another unique feature is related to the differential mobility of these migrants, which depends on the Autonomous Communities in which they live and are welcomed. Different studies in Andalusia, Canary Islands, Catalonia and Madrid (pioneer regions of this phenomenon) have reflected the trends of these migrants. Whereas this mobility was increasing in Andalusia, it was decreasing in Catalonia. This differential mobility is the result of the different management models of protective institutions, and it was greater in the Autonomous Communities, where management and administrative coordination processes between organizations that intervened in the procedures (consulates, government offices, and ministries) were slow and ineffective13 (Fundación Pere Tarres, 2005). Slow management, lack of coordination, lack of legal compliance and limitations when initiating processes of labor integration, not only led to high and differential mobility but also constituted a failed strategy for controlling child migration, which had side effects such as more frequent escapes from child protection centers and adoption of life on the streets (Barranco, González and Torrado, 2007).14

When studying these minor migrations, it is also necessary to analyze the multiple oppressions and vulnerabilities to which they are subjected. Jiménez (2003) emphasizes that these vulnerabilities are higher for MENA than other groups of migrants. Additionally, Torrado and González (2010) reflect that in addition to age, intersections in terms of gender, origin, social class or unauthorized status should be considered because they constitute components of oppression and increase the level of vulnerability. Even so, gender is rarely analyzed in this type of MENA migration analysis, perhaps because girls are a minority. However, they are no less complex, especially given that they tend to be more closely linked with extreme social exclusion, servitude and trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation as well as other types of violence, thus making them more vulnerable than male children (Torrado, 2012).

Identifying vulnerabilities and invisibilities of foreign unaccompanied minors with respect to origin and destination

As previously mentioned, analysis of the migrations of unaccompanied minors presents multiple difficulties in terms of awareness, quantification and characterization. These handicaps are due to the lack of visibility of this phenomenon, which is greater for MENAs with greater vulnerability. Therefore, the youngest female minors or those that come from situations of greatest need or exclusion move more frequently through paths that are outside of border enforcement and protection systems. These MENA, given their status as unauthorized foreigners and their age and gender characteristics, encounter difficulties in terms social inclusion and escaping the invisibility that makes them legally and socially vulnerable. In addition to these vulnerabilities at the destination and beyond (and during their intra–national migratory movement), they face invisibility of origin that is related to spaces of social exclusion to which they are subjected in their daily lives, such as poverty, abuse, exclusion, dropping out of the education system, child labor, life on the streets, and forced marriages (Torrado, 2012).15

Another factor that increases the vulnerabilities of this group is what is known as "project clash" between migratory projects and plans to integrate MENAs into their destination societies. In the former, the objective of the migrant is to improve his/her quality of life and that of their families by remaining in the destination country, if possible, through legal channels. In the latter, states have their own plans to welcome these MENA (almost always temporarily) only to later integrate or repatriate them to their countries of origin (González and Torrado, 2008). These two groups have opposed objectives (the migration plans of MENAs and the integration–expulsion plans of protection institutions), which leads to expulsion from the protection system and lack of detection as a result of self–hiding by the MENAs, who wish to remain hidden in an attempt to avoid the requests of the protection system (Quiroga, Alonso and Sòria, 2009). This disconnect between projects results in the movement of minors under conditions of social exclusion and high vulnerability, in which risky social practices represent their responses or strategies for their own survival (Quiroga, Berga, Alonso and Sòria, 2007).

Accordingly, Quiroga, Alonso and Sòria (2009) state that during the first stage of arrival of these minors, those who were beyond control and protection systems were "Moroccan street children" with significant physical and mental deterioration due to their excluded and poor status and their survival practices. Recently, new profiles that exhibit a greater level of social invisibility or exclusion have been considered; these include MENAs from negligent families (primarily from Morocco and Romania) and girls subjected to trafficking and smuggling for the purpose of sexual or labor exploitation. These new profiles are also characteristic of the Canary Islands (with the exception of minors coming from negligent Romanian families), with MENA girls under conditions of social exclusion coming exclusively from the Magreb or the Sahel. Sub–Saharan girls are subjected to trafficking, and because of their invisibility, detecting them becomes difficult.16 Analysis of their invisibility and their multiple vulnerabilities is reflected in the study "Pocket Dreams" (UNICEF, Grupo de Investigaciones del Instituto de Fomento y Asesoría Municipal, IFAM [Research Group of the Institute for Municipal Advancement and Consulting], Pere Tarrés Foundation, 2010), which establishes a series of typologies of minors under conditions of severe social exclusion that are related not only to the status of being unauthorized minors but also include origin, gender, and the method through which they enter the territory. The first case includes African (mostly Moroccan) children who have been expelled from the protection system or for whom assimilation service practices have lacked minimal guarantees (Empez, 2008). This case also includes minors whose families of origin exert pressure to stop their repatriation through family adoption in destination countries; the adoptive families are very often lacking in resources or are in unauthorized situations themselves. This pressure can become a decisive factor that results in minors ending up on the streets and in situations of social exclusion.

Girls intercepted by the system tend to be of Moroccan origin, between the ages of 12 and 16 years, and have migrated in response to changes produced by the Moroccan economy that have significantly affected traditional family models. These impacts include reduced birth rates, increased levels of training for women, incorporation of women into the labor market, and a delay in marrying age. Accordingly, Quiroga (2009) states that more than 50% of the women interviewed in his study came from nuclear families and abandoned their studies in the first or second year of high school. The rest did not finish primary school, claiming a lack of financial resources. Some of them had previous work experience in the family subsistence economy. Their migration patterns are similar to those of adults, although they exhibit variations in terms of escaping difficult situations related to their gender (such as lack of autonomy, forced marriages, and genital mutilation), which are worsened by their minor status and the violence that they are subjected to during migration. In the peninsula, they can enjoy a certain amount of autonomy while crossing borders, be it in vehicles, buses or trucks. However, in the Canary Islands (mainly because it is a maritime border), that autonomy is non–existent because of the necessary dependence on human trafficking and smuggling networks to fulfill their migration projects with some guarantee of success17 (Morante and Trillo, 2007). During transit, they are subjected to male custody, servitude, and sexual violence. Once they reach Spain, a long period of time is usually required before they are detected by border enforcement or child protection systems, which places them in a condition of significantly greater vulnerability and lack of assistance than males. Their migration expectations are the same as those of boys, i.e., to achieve legal status, income and an autonomous life that allows them to help their families; however, the itinerary to achieve this is more complicated because of the rigid and traditional construction of gender roles both in the destination country and in the country of origin (Women's Link Worldwide, 2008).

One model of female minor migration that combines labor and sexual exploitation is that known as the "petites bonnes"18, which is a system in Morocco for exploiting young girls, generally from rural backgrounds, who are used by family members and networks of countrymen in the destination country for domestic servitude (Ajaaouani, 2013). A study by Human Rights Watch (2007) denounces the labor and sexual exploitation of these girls and estimated that at that time, the practice involved between 60,000 and 80,000 victims.19 The activities and spaces into which these girls are placed pre–determine their invisibility and double vulnerability within international clandestine migrations. According to Llorent (2013), this practice of servitude has affected thousands of girls who work every day as domestic workers for a miserable salary and in a situation of isolation. They are frequently the subjects of verbal, physical, emotional and even sexual abuse, and they are barred or hindered from access to education and training. In spite of awareness campaigns, petites bonnes are a common reality in many African countries, thus making it difficult to envision short–term eradication of this phenomenon, especially because those involved include family members, intermediaries and employers.

Another group of MENAs who are common within Spanish borders but practically non–existent in the Canary Islands are those from Eastern Europe.20 They began to be intercepted in the years 2002–2005 in the Autonomous Communities of Valencia and Catalonia. They are mostly of Romani ethnicity and Romanian or Bulgarian in origin. Usually, they are involved in activities related to begging and petty larceny. These minors are further differentiated by inadequate accompaniment by negligent families (they arrive in the country with family members), thus establishing a clear difference between those that are alone and those that live with an extensive family (even if the family ignores its roles of protection and assistance). There is little statistical data regarding these cases (although the media frequently offers images that help spread stereotypes). Currently, however, the European Union, the government of Spain and different human rights advocacy associations have expressed concern for the increased rate of this phenomenon and the exploitation to which these minors are subjected by criminal networks (Pro–Human Rights Association of Andalusia [Asociación Pro–Derechos Humanos de Andalucía], 2013).21

Another MENA typology is victims of sexual exploitation, a group that is difficult to intercept and study in spite of the many human rights organizations, such as Women's Link Worldwide (2008), who revealed an unabated increase of new recruits of minors for the sex trade mostly coming from Eastern European countries (Romania and Bulgaria) and sub–Saharan Africa (Nigeria, Mali and Senegal). In the peninsula, the number of minors subject to sexual exploitation that come from Eastern Europe is greater than the number that come from Africa, in contrast with the Canary Islands, where the former, as mentioned previously, is practically non–existent. Recruitment of sub–Saharan MENAs starts in communities of origin through coercion or deception (offering them work and family support) or during transit, where they come into contact with human trafficking and smuggling networks. According to the previously cited study, out of 98 women interviewed from the Sahel and the Magreb, 22% were detained at some Moroccan border point after crossing multiple African borders and waiting for the opportunity to reach Spain through the Canary Islands (most of them came from Nigeria and were between the ages of 11 and 17 years).

The model of gathering and moving these minors varies. One method (which is less common because of the high level of control need and cost) is transit by airplane using fake documents and professional "transporters" (who play the role of relatives or guardians). Another method that is most often used in the Canary Islands involves escorting of very young girls by an adult male or female who guards them until they reach the border of Morocco or Mauritania on their way to the Islands. During transit, the girls are often raped and forced into prostitution as a way of partially paying for their passage or as gender–related punishment for starting a migration project on their own, an opportunity that is usually reserved for males. (As a result, some of these girls reach the Spanish border pregnant or with sexually transmitted diseases). The networks that organize and coordinate human trafficking and smuggling through the Atlantic Ocean towards the Canary Islands have international ties and influence and significant infrastructure. They not only traffic a large number of migrants but are also diversifying and combining their activities with trafficking of other merchandise, such as weapons and drugs. Clandestine transit routes of migrants from Africa to the Canary Islands are harsh, long and dangerous: they cover distances of as much as 6,000 kilometers, and it requires an average of three to four years for migrants to reach the coast of the Canary Islands. Transit inside of the African continent is usually by foot or in trucks until the boarding location is reached. When the girls arrive in the Canary Islands or any other place in Spain, they contact someone known as "mommy", a woman who suffered sexual exploitation in the past but has paid her debts. She exerts control and coercion and guarantees payment of the debt by means of coercion, physical and psychological abuse, and even religious or family threats (Doctors Without Borders, 2013).22

Rebuilding the concept of the minor and redefining migrations of foreign unaccompanied minors as a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood

Another important feature for understanding migrations of foreign unaccompanied minors is to consider the current conceptual and practical disassociation between their reality and the reality of European minors, given that each society has its own social construct of what it means to be a child, and these concepts are closely related with culture, the political system, the economy and traditions.

Regarding the concept of the minor based on age structures (which is an indicator for measuring specific behaviors or actions) and categorizations such as sex, social class, origin, and even ethnic or religious association, each society determines a set of obligations and rights according to these categories or stages differently. Going from one stage to another is always performed through rituals that societies have historically provided. The passage from childhood to adulthood has been traditionally characterized by a transition from dependence to independence through acquisition of adult status via activities that include work, marriage and reproduction as solid indicators of the capacity and autonomy of a member of society.

The capitalist system and globalized mass production model has generated powerful transformations between generations and age groups, in addition to gender relationships (Safa, 1995, 1999; Sassen, 1988). The traditional system of dependence upon which domestic production, political authority and social cohesion mechanisms were based has been modified by the new capitalism, leading to effects such as the proletarianization of minors and women. In the past, many of these minors depended financially on paternal figures or worked in family units until they acquired sufficient resources for the dowry and for building their own family units; this situation began to change with the development mass wage labor and proletarianization. This change gave people access (fundamentally through ICT) to consumer goods and merchandise and the possibility of adopting the Western belief that social upward mobility is possible but forgetting that the capitalist system itself seeks to acquire maximum benefits through cheap and vulnerable labor. These processes of proletarianization of minors and women in global contexts have been the subject of interest and study in export zones and labor internalization processes during the last few decades, including the Mexico–United States border and the border between Spain and Morocco (Álvarez and Giacalone, 2012; Morales, 2012).

These economic changes result in modifications of traditional values, gender and age roles and are related with new economic scenarios, a rapid increase in the number of globalized capitalist economies, collapses of traditional agricultural economies, and resulting massive migrations from the fields to the cities, which have led to excessive and chaotic urban processes. This is the setting for generational and gender changes. Given that male employment is more expensive in terms of capital, it is replaced with minors who are beginning early autonomy processes and obtaining income for family support (even if it is in an informal economy) and with women who simultaneously continue to raise children and fulfill domestic duties (Safa, 1995, 1999). As a result, these processes, which were consolidated in Latin America in the 1980s and started to extend to Africa during the 1990s (for example, in Morocco, which is one of the main sources of MENAs), increased the number of families headed by women. Similarly, and given the lack of opportunities around them, many male minors decided to emigrate, and because of the limitations in mobility generated by patriarchal values in the societies of origin and the lifecycle of women, many girls assumed the role of mothers, wives, caretakers and breadwinners without the means to subsist.

In the case being studied here, it is known that these MENAs come from highly patriarchal societies. These societies are often ruled by patrilineal norms established by parentage or nassab, in which identity and legitimacy of people in Muslim societies is determined by blood ties and whose only valid form of union is legally constituted marriage (Ramírez y Jiménez, 2005). As a result, the children born out of wedlock are considered illegitimate, and Mudawana family rights do not extend protection measures to women and children under such situations, thus leaving the minors to be cared for exclusively by single women (either because they are widows, because of rejection or as a result of immigration) in situations of social exclusion. These conditions lead to early abandonment of the school system and incorporation into the labor market in vulnerable conditions such that the minors can help support the family and acquire adult status (either through labor activities or by undertaking a migration project). Therefore, processes of early incorporation into labor or migration activities significantly affect African communities and their traditions, thus leading to a substitution of the traditional rites for the transition from childhood to adulthood that were established by those communities of origin.

For many minors, migration has become one of these rites of passage, especially in single–parent, poor and unstructured families because those who participate in formal education and have structured families rarely pursue the project of migrating to another country. In the case of minors that do migrate, they use migration networks and human trafficking and smuggling organizations, thereby acquiring abilities and skills usually reserved for adults: negotiating, becoming informed, making decisions and moving through spaces that are exclusive to adults, thus facing challenges that do not match their biological stage. It is usually because of these minors that there are infrequent "mythological" references to those who emigrated secretly and came back successfully (which is understood as acquiring European citizenship and sufficient material means to improve their lives and the lives of their families), thus causing others to internalize the advantages of a young age in terms of clandestine experiences in the destination country (Jiménez, 2003).

ICT and migration networks act as informational devices not just for emigration practices but also for becoming aware of the ethical and normative conceptualizations of minors in Western societies. This awareness is perceived as an advantage or opportunity to acquire a better return on investment in terms of migration costs because there is a lower risk and better chances of success for minors than for adults (the latter are more likely to be expelled). In addition, the benefits of their young ages and the idealized social framework of European countries regarding "the minor" make minors assume high risks.

In the West, the most influential concept regarding the minor is the ideal of a transitional, hopeful and preparatory stage for adulthood. However, for these migrant minors, that hopeful and happy stage with its rites of passage does not occur in the same manner because it is linked to lack of protection and vulnerable conditions. Therefore, MENAs deviate from the model of protection of childhood in our societies because they initiate an individual process of transnational mobility with the aim of survival. They plan and pursue this process through established networks and channels with their own motivations and objectives, as if they were adults. In addition, these constructions are associated with a set of adult obligations and rights that are granted through historically guaranteed rites of passage in all societies. Therefore, these migratory processes have also led to changes the economic, social and family structures in the societies of origin, thereby altering traditional values and gender roles.23

This social framework regarding the ideal of minors is disassociated in the case of MENAs, whose rite of passage into adulthood is more frequently linked to migration (while obtaining personal and economic autonomy) but occurs under conditions of extreme vulnerability and a lack of protection. Therefore, MENAs depart from the classic Western childhood paradigm, which is based on protection and dependence. This departure occurs because MENAs perform adult roles not just in their societies of origin (they work, support family units, have children, and participate in violent conflicts) but also because they are able to autonomously undertake individual migration projects, either voluntarily or by force, with or without family support, in which uncertainty and guarantees for success are relative and the pressure exerted on them is very intense.

Likewise, in the Canary Islands, these minors have had to undertake planning on their own or with their families, contact and make travel arrangements with human trafficking and smuggling networks, and face the harsh conditions of the journey just as adults would. However, even so, they are still different from traditional adult migrants because their young age makes them subject to multiple vulnerabilities that result from their utilization for the economic gain of families and trafficking and smuggling networks as they move towards Europe.


This article reflects the increased interest of the scientific community in analyzing the phenomenon of MENAs from multiple perspectives. This interest is reflected by the increasing number of studies, reports and articles and the development of public guidelines and policies for the assistance and protection of migrant minors, who have proliferated in the last few decades of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty–first century. This interest has yielded more varied and heterogeneous analyses of these MENA migrations, and there is evidence of agreement in defining a new model led by active subjects of a migratory project, regardless of the existence of family support or a broader family strategy. These minors move through international borders and often migrate on their own without an adult to accompany them. In those cases in which they are escorted by an adult, they are generally used as a means to enter Europe with some guarantee of success (even without there being a family or affective bond, regardless of what the migrants state at the border). These particularities are derived from the multiple vulnerabilities and risks that come with migrating as a minor and help to define their profiles and routes and their strategies for clandestine entry and for survival in their destination countries. Another particularity is that in spite of interacting with adult migrations, MENA migration exhibits differences, such as constituting a rite of passage to adulthood, and specific mobility processes that affect family, gender and intergenerational structures.

Similarly, MENAs exhibit differences compared with other migrants; these differences are primarily a consequence of the legal and assistance frameworks that apply and result in a dual assessment of their condition: as subjects that bear rights yet are subject to control. MENAs also face a contradictory social assessment: as victims of the system, who are therefore to be protected, and as criminalized subjects (because of their unauthorized status and socio–economic characteristics) who must be repressed, persecuted, or expelled. These differences, heterogeneity and singularities have been studied, especially in the last two decades of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty–first century, and we are coming closer to understanding MENAs' profiles and migratory routes. In the specific case of the Canary Islands, MENA migration is dominated by African minors that are characterized by autonomy, planning, links to smuggling networks, diversification and lengthening of routes, and homogenous transport strategies (exclusively maritime).

In addition to these unique characteristics, MENAs are subjected to significant and marked processes of invisibilization, which are worse for younger, more excluded, and female MENAs. Moreover, MENAs are often mobilized far from systems of border enforcement and protection.

Another important aspect is that these migrations are subject to conflicting expectations. The minors have economic motivations to migrate, but the destination societies design "integration" projects that are based on returning the minors to their countries of origin. These differential expectations lead to conflicts and often result in expulsion from the protection system or cause the minors to remain invisible to make it more difficult for institutions to control them.

In addition to the importance of the socio–economic, political and legal circumstances that favor these types of migrations, there are other cultural circumstances that have an influence and are related to the perceptions or social constructs that each society has regarding what it means to be a minor; considering these constructs helps one understand the factors that influence migration trends. These constructs are linked to social categories and to general sets of obligations and rights in each society. Generally, the rite of passage from childhood to adulthood is performed through rituals historically established by each society. However, in the current globalized world, societies are incapable of providing these rituals. In many cases (mainly in underprivileged countries), migration serves as this rite of passage, although it is quite at odds with the classical paradigm of protection and dependence. Therefore, these minors must assume adult roles at a young age and face the harsh challenge of secretly migrating through international borders (either by force or voluntarily and with or without family support), where they experience violence, uncertainty, and relatively little guarantee of success while facing intense family and social pressures that require them to assume excessive responsibilities, with all of the emotional burdens that this entails for a minor.


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1 This study was performed as a part of R&D Project "Justice, citizenship and gender: feminization of migration and human rights" (FFI2011–24120) of the Ministry of Economics and Competitiveness of the Government of Spain.

2 It is necessary to highlight that because of the geopolitical conditions of the Canary Islands (they are on the southern boundary of Europe, an intercontinental maritime boundary, and have very uneven social well–being indicators), the islands exhibit a distinct MENA profile compared with other territories in Spain. This distinctiveness is characterized by the exclusively "small boat" nature of the migration, in addition to the high risk, the difficulty of gaining access to island coasts and the range of routes followed by migrant smuggling. To enter peninsular territories, migrants have a variety of entry alternatives: autonomously by land, hidden in the axles of buses or trucks, or, more recently, by jumping the "fence" (the border wall located at the boundary between the Spanish city of Melilla and Morocco, in northern Africa). Generally, these routes do not require payment or transport fees. In the Canary Islands, however, the only option for entering the territory is through "smugglers", or human trafficking and smuggling organizations, exclusively by sea (with the associated human risks). This involves prior planning and the necessary financial resources to pay smugglers, which links migrations from African to the Canary Islands to human trafficking and smuggling networks.

3 The term "pateras" is popularly defined as a certain type of vessel used for local fishing in fishing villages of the northern Magreb (Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria). Recently, the concept has been broadened to include even inflatable boats or boats of questionable craftsmanship that are only used for trafficking immigrants on the Atlantic Ocean. These vessels are usually filled with 20 to 30 people. Starting in the year 2006, new maritime migrant flows coming from Sahel (Senegal, Mali, Nigeria and Niger) in vessels known as "cayucos" begin to appear. Cayucos are larger vessels that are traditionally used for fishing but are starting to be used for unauthorized transport of migrants coming from sub–Saharan Africa; they have larger capacities, 70 to 90 people (Naranjo, 2006).

4 In these studies, semi–structured interviews of minors that resided in detention centers of the Child Protection Network, professionals and technicians were conducted. Intervention documents from Individual Educational Plans (IEP) and School Educational Projects (Proyecto Educativo de Centro, PEC) were also analyzed; this analysis enabled evaluation of the degree of inclusion or exclusion of these minor and the intervention philosophy of public protection authorities. Finally, the database on Minors (Inicial de Menores, IM) was analyzed, which helped not only to determine the socio–demographic profile of MENAs in the Canaries but also to characterize the group by determining their migratory expectations and motivations.

5 It is important to emphasize that MENAs can be considered as a group because, in spite of their heterogeneity, they exhibit shared peculiarities and characteristics in terms of their migratory processes and behaviors.

6 There have been many studies that have defined and analyzed the expansion of clandestine migrations from Africa to Spain. For example, Lahlou (2005:86) performed a historical analysis of this quick evolution, especially regarding clandestine migrations, among which MENA migrations are included. The study defined the concept of the clandestine migrant, which would encompass the condition of administrative irregularity, either while entering the territory or after arriving. According to the author, this extremely rapid expansion of "clandestine" migrants, or those persons in an "unauthorized situation" that come from Africa is connected to "the multiple push/pull factors that are exerted over certain sections of the African population, especially the youngest segments".

7 The distance between Africa and the Canary Islands is only 95 kilometers, but there is a huge difference in living standards. The Canary Island territory is formed by seven islands, which makes it a fragmented territory for which border surveillance and enforcement is difficult. This situation makes its borders highly permeable to unauthorized merchandise and people (in spite of the danger of the routes, which results in many lives being lost while attempting to cross the Atlantic) and also makes it difficult to quantify the actual number of migrants who have entered the Canary Island territory and the number of lives that have been lost in the attempt. The available data regarding the number of MENA in Spain who remain with either authorized or unauthorized status and the number of those who have died along the way are not very reliable. However, there are European reports that estimate that in the year 2005, there were approximately 30,000 MENA who migrated to Spain (CON RED, 2005).

8 These migrations are considered an ethically questionable and exceptional phenomenon because our society resists accepting (given the social construction of the concept of childhood) a phenomenon that exhibits secrecy, lack of protection, and, in many cases, exploitation from the market via unauthorized labor.

9 This case is more common along the southern border of Andalusia, where unaccompanied minors cross the border as stowaways, hidden below large vehicles, or by jumping the "fence" at the border that separates the city of Melilla from Morocco; these methods do not necessarily require contact or support from human trafficking and smuggling networks.

10 The Canary Islands constitute a second boundary within Spain when moving towards Europe. The distance to the peninsula is more than 3,000 kilometers (some three hours by plane or two days by sea). The peninsula is generally the real objective of the migrants who arrive through this route.

11 The relevance of these migrations in Spain cannot be compared to that in countries in which the state does not intervene in assisting and protecting these groups. In the case of Spain, the intervention of public agencies because of child protection policies is one of the factors that determines the tendency to migrate.

12 In this stage, the strong border pressure in Andalusia and the lack of it in the Canaries led to a change in strategy among trafficking and smuggling networks, who diverted migrant traffic towards the island territory. This stage, which lasted through 2006, was known as the "Cayucos Crisis", in which there were mass arrivals of migrants in "cayucos" from the Sahel (approximately 39,000 people). However, in addition to the change in the route from Andalusia to the Canary Islands, there were also changes in the migrants' socio–demographic profiles (the new migrants come primarily from the Sahel) and route lengths (the migrants previously left from the Sahara or northern Morocco, but in that year, they started to leave from Senegal and other points of the African continent that are farther from Europe). Other changes detected in that stage include the appearance of MENA girls and the variability in border entry, with arrivals to smaller islands, such as El Hierro, La Palma and La Gomera, which previously had not experienced this phenomenon and were not covered by the Integrated External Surveillance System (Sistema Integrado de Vigilancia Exterior, SIVE).

13 In the case of Catalonia, administrative regulation processes were agile in terms of response time and form, in contrast with Andalusia and the Canary Islands, for example, where the timeframe of nine months for obtaining a residency permit established by law was frequently not complied with. Moreover, the integration activities that were offered were aimed toward incorporating these minors into formal educational processes (regular education up to 16 years of age), which pulled them away from achieving their short–term goals (residency permits, work permits and obtaining income).

14 The contradictions between migratory and integration projects as well as frequent territorial mobility (with the difficulties this entails for studying this group) were reflected in two important studies promoted by the Tenerife Immigration Observatory (el Observatorio de la Imigración de Tenerife, OBITEN) and the government of the Canary Islands (Barroso et al., 2006; Godenau and Zapata, 2007) that have contributed valuable and extensive information regarding this migration model into the Canary Islands during the twenty–first century.

15 Another component that boosts the invisibility of the MENA group is the lack of detection and integration by protection services, either because they are not intercepted or because of continuous expulsions and escapes from protection centers.

16 Another component of invisibility is derived from being outside of the Spanish protection system, either because the MENAs have not been intercepted by child protection mechanisms or because they have been expelled from them.

17 The development and consolidation of human trafficking and smuggling networks in Spain is related to transnational phenomena, globalization, and border enforcement policies. This generates relationships of interdependency between migrants and criminal networks, as argued by Malero (2014). Even so, and in contrast with Spanish territories, MENA migrations in the Canary Islands are exclusively of African origin (there are no other origin profiles). This homogenization of African profiles is not only derived from the border enforcement model or proximity to the African continent but also the particularities of the territory, whose island nature makes it difficult to access except by sea or air. This makes such migration closely dependent on criminal networks, unlike in other border territories, such as Andalusia, where there is the possibility of a personal agenda, autonomy, and variability in terms entry methods (e.g., as stowaways, under trucks, jumping the fence, and in private vehicles). In many cases, migrants to other border territories do not depend on trafficking networks or are even totally removed from them.

18 Currently, in Morocco (as in postwar Spain after 1939), there is some social acceptance of child labor, with a proliferation of female child labor from rural areas for domestic services. These girls are popularly known as "petites bonnes".

19 Testimonies gathered from the book Misery (Ech–Channa, 2010) reflect the frequency with which these girls are exploited, raped and impregnated against their will by their own bosses or employers or sexually abused in public spaces by unknown men.

20 Institutions that assist minors in the Canary Islands have detected some cases of minors of Romanian origin who lacked protection. Beyond being unaccompanied minors, they were minors with insufficient assistance from their families, who lacked authorized status and ignored their duties to protect their sons and daughters.

21 The Prosecutor for Children of the Autonomous Communities of Madrid, Catalonia and Valencia issued an alert regarding the increased number of minors coming mostly from Romania who are exploited by human trafficking and smuggling networks for the purposes of forced labor and sexual exploitation and exhibit significant spatial mobility, thereby making them difficult to detect by child protection services and placing them in spaces of utmost vulnerability (Fundación Pere Tarrés, 2005).

22 Spanish State Security Forces and Agencies have revealed that women of Nigerian origin are those who suffer the most aggressions through exploitation and prostitution and are the least protected. The mean debt to mafia that they acquire to enter Spain is approximately 30,000 to 50,000 euros, which requires an average repayment time (in the best of cases) of 4 to 5 years.

23 The concept of the minor being established by age has not been widely accepted. There are varied rites that mark the passage from childhood to adulthood that go beyond age groups, which are merely dynamic social networks that change not only from a historical perspective but also according to cultural, social class, and gender perspectives. In spite of this, the age–based concept in Western societies is quite central; therefore, people who belong to Western societies experience it even though there may be differences in terms of social class, ethnicity, or gender (Pérez–Sánchez, 2004). As a result, in our societies, age–based minor status is a stage that is defined by innocence, play, happiness and protection, characteristics that can be extrapolated even to those that are undervalued in terms of social class, ethnicity, or gender.