Migrants are increasingly crossing a treacherous part of the Atlantic Ocean to reach the Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago near West Africa, in what has become one of the most dangerous routes to European territory.
About 4,000 people have survived the perilous journey this year. More than 250 others have died or gone missing that is more than the number of people who perished trying to cross the Western Mediterranean in all of last year, according to the International Organization for Migration.
On August 19, 15 lifeless Malians were spotted inside a wooden boat by a Spanish plane 148km from the island of Gran Canaria and towed back to port. At nightfall, workers pulled the bloated corpses, one by one, out of the boat with a crane.
Less than 24 hours later, another migrant boat was rescued and brought to the island with 12 people and four dead, as the AP watched. The survivors had witnessed their comrades die along the way.
In the week that The Associated Press spent in the Canary Islands to report this story, at least 20 bodies were recovered.
The increase in traffic to the Canaries comes after the European Union funded Morocco in 2019 to stop migrants from reaching southern Spain via the Mediterranean Sea.
While arrivals to mainland Spain decreased by 50% compared to the same period last year, landings in the Canary Islands have increased by 550%. In August alone there were more than 850 arrivals by sea to the Canaries, according to an AP tally of numbers released by Spain’s Interior Ministry and reports by local media and NGOs.
Arrivals this year are still low compared to the 30,000 migrants who reached the islands in 2006. But they are at their highest in over a decade since Spain stemmed the flow of sea arrivals to just a few hundred a year through deals with West African countries.
The striking shift in migration back to the Canaries has raised alarms at the highest levels of the Spanish government. Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s first trip abroad following the pandemic lockdown was to Mauritania, one of the main departure points.
Most recently, the interior ministry announced a donation of 1.5 million euros in border surveillance equipment to six West African countries.
But human rights organizations say those arriving to Spanish shores are only a fraction of those departing.
“We are only seeing the tip of the iceberg,” said Sophie Muller, the United Nations High Commissioners for Refugees’ representative in Spain, who recently visited the archipelago. “They are taking impossible routes.”
It can take one to 10 days to reach the Spanish islands, with the closest departure point being in Tarfaya, Morocco (100 km, 62 miles) and the furthest recorded this year in Barra, in The Gambia (more than 1,600km, 1,000 miles).
It is common for migrants to run out of food, water and fuel after only a few days.
Human rights organizations aren’t just concerned with the high number of deaths.
“There’s been a change in profile,” said Muller, the UNHCR representative in Spain. “We see more arrivals from the Sahel, from the Ivory Coast, more women, more children, more profiles that would be in need of international protection.” (Source: Mainichi Japan)