UN refugee and migration agencies called for renewed efforts to tackle people-smuggling and trafficking gangs, and protection of the people they exploit, following the death of 140 refugees after their boat sunk off the coast of Senegal.
The incident on Saturday is the deadliest this year and follows four shipwrecks in the central Mediterranean last week and another in the English Channel.
This has come amid a huge rise in the number of migrants and refugees using the dangerous Atlantic route from Africa to the Canary Islands.
According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), the vessel carrying 200 people left the Senegalese coastal town of Mbour last Saturday, bound for the Canary Islands.
A few hours into the journey, the boat caught fire and capsized near Saint-Louis on Senegal’s north-west coast. Fifty-nine people were rescued by nearby fishing vessels and the Senegalese and Spanish navies, and the bodies of 20 others were recovered.
A survivor of the wreck said it had been impossible to count the number of passengers on the boat, a narrow craft called a pirogue more usually used for fishing. Many were from Saint-Louis, where entire streets were plunged into mourning by the tragedy.
Rescued by Spanish coastguards before being handed over to Senegalese authorities, the 20-year-old told local media that “when it blew up, it was everyone for themselves to escape and survive”. He described catching hold of a plastic jerry can, throwing it into the water and then diving in after it.
“It was a fight for the jerry cans,” he said. “I spent three hours hanging on to it. When the boat exploded I saw people, possibly dead, either side of me, but I was only thinking about saving myself.”
The incident on Saturday was followed by another early on Monday in which a Senegalese navy vessel struck a boat filled with migrants when it tried to escape a patrol. Authorities said they were able to save “only 39” people. More are presumed to have drowned.
The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said the Atlantic route was growing in popularity once again because of enduring conflicts, land border closures due to coronavirus and increased controls in some North African countries.
“This is a trend that’s going to continue – especially given the current context,” said MaríaJesús Vega, a spokeswoman for UNHCR Spain. “We need to do a lot more to fight these merciless mafias, who are already reorganising themselves to play with people’s lives.”
Even before reaching an overcrowded boat, said Vega, many people were tortured and abused by the gangs. “Then there’s the crossing itself, which is very long and dangerous and which can take days or even weeks. This is the deadliest route. Some of these boats are fully packed with people – 100, 200 per boat – so people are really risking their lives all over again.”
An estimated 414 people have died trying to reach the Canaries so far this year – almost double the 210 deaths recorded in 2019.
In an interview with the Guardian this week, Spain’s secretary of state for migration said the issue required a coordinated international response.
“It’s clear that everyone realises that we won’t be able to deal with this phenomenon unless we work in countries of origin,” said Hana Jalloul. “But we also need to focus on the mafias who abuse these people and push a dream that ends in death at sea.” (Source: The guardian)