Spain urged to act over ‘shameful’ toll of migrants dying en route to country
Spain is facing an unprecedented and “catastrophic” year on its borders, says a leading NGO which estimates that more than 2,000 people died or disappeared trying to reach the country in the first six months of 2021 – almost as many as perished in attempts in all of last year.
In a report published on Tuesday, Caminando Fronteras (Walking Borders) found that 2,087 people, including 341 women and 96 children, had died or gone missing while trying to reach Spain by sea between January and the end of June this year. Last year, 2,170 migrants and refugees lost their lives or vanished en route to the country.
Caminado Fronteras said the figures over the first half of 2021 were the worst it had recorded in the 14 years it has been tracking and helping to rescue people leaving Africa for Spain.
Once again, the Atlantic route to the Canary islands has proved by far the most fatal so far this year, with 1,922 fatalities in 57 shipwrecks. Next has come the route across the Alborán sea (93 deaths in nine wrecks), the strait of Gibraltar route (36 deaths in nine wrecks) and the Algerian route (26 deaths in four wrecks).
The dead were citizens of 18 countries: Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea-Conakry, Guinea-Bissau, the Gambia, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Nigeria, DRC, Burkina Faso, Comoros, Syria, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Yemen, and Sri Lanka.
Helena Maleno, who leads the NGO, said the governments of Spain, Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria had to act now if a tragedy of ever greater proportions were to be avoided.
“We are calling on all the relevant governments, and especially the Spanish government, to hold an urgent meeting of the relevant ministries because there’s an urgent need to defend life on the Canaries route,” said Maleno. “That need must be addressed and steps taken so that we don’t have such shameful figures over the next six months.”
Failure to act, she said, would only increase the number of lives lost in what had already proved a dreadful year for deaths and disappearances.
She said: “Last year was the worst to date when it comes to figures. This year, we’ve very nearly reached the same figure in just six months, and I’m saying that loud and clear. We’re calling on the Spanish government to stop this now so that we don’t have to talk about a catastrophic year on the border.”
There had been an increase in the number of women and children on the Canaries route, which claimed 1,851 lives last year, she said, adding that they now outnumbered men in some boats.
The already perilous route had been made even more dangerous by the increased use of inflatable boats.“These boats have a very high tragedy rate. Over the past six months inflatable boats have accounted for 33% of all the alerts we received on the Atlantic route. That’s very high. Even the wooden boats are dangerous because their motors break and because the people who drive them don’t know the seas and don’t know how to navigate on the open sea.”
Teodoro Bondyale, secretary of the Federation of African Associations, in the Canaries, said deaths on the route to the archipelago were becoming far too common and far too normalised.
“We refer to these people as murder victims, and that’s not a metaphor,” he said. “The conditions these people face, especially on the Canaries route, represent an almost certain death. The strange thing is that doesn’t happen even more than it does. We’re really, really, worried that this is becoming normalised and that people are dying in small boats and inflatable boats and that we’re not finding out about it.”
Caminando Fronteras has saved hundreds of lives over the past few years by fielding distress calls from people crossing from Africa and passing on their details so they can be rescued by coast guards and maritime rescue services. It also charts and logs missing ships and works with relatives and the authorities to identify the missing and the dead. The bodies of 95% of those who die or disappear are never recovered.
The NGO’s new report was released as Spanish police arrested two people over their alleged role in the deaths of more than 20 people, including a five-year-old girl, who perished trying to reach the Canaries. Both the alleged trafficker and alleged captain of the boat were among 29 people rescued from the vessel on 30 June after 13 days adrift.
According to Spain’s interior ministry 6,952 migrants arrived in the Canaries between January and June this year, compared with 2,706 over the same period in 2020.
More than 23,000 migrants and refugees arrived in the archipelago over the whole of last year, up from 2,687 in 2019. The increase placed the islands’ reception infrastructure under enormous pressure and led to deplorable conditions in makeshift camps.