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TheNewHumanitarian.org: Deaths on migration route to Canary Islands soar to 1,000 a month

Posted by: Berhane Habtemariam

Date: Friday, 21 June 2024

Mauritania has overtaken Senegal as the main departure point for those taking on the perilous Atlantic crossing.
This is a long shot image. At the centre we see a docked bright orange ship. Next to it is a boat with groups of people on it. This image depicts the arrival of the patera at the dock of La Restinga, on October 21, 2023, in El Hierro, Canary Islands (Spain). Europa Press/ABACA via Reuters Connect
More than 500 migrants and asylum seekers arrive on two boats at the dock on El Hierro, one of the Canary Islands, after an Atlantic crossing, on 21 October 2023.

More than 5,000 people died in the first five months of this year trying to reach Spain by sea, 95% of them on Atlantic Ocean crossings from West and Northwest Africa to the Canary Islands, a new report on the world’s deadliest migration route reveals.

Mauritania has overtaken Senegal as the main departure point, representing 3,600 of the deaths between January and April, according to the report from Ca-minando Fronteras (Walking Borders), a collective dedicated to protecting migrant communities.

Arrivals in the Canary Islands have been rising for years, but the latest figures represent an increase in fatalities of almost 700% in the first five months of 2024 over the same period in 2023.

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During that time frame, at least 47 boats – small vessels with hundreds of people typically packed onto them – disappeared with everyone on board, and an average of 33 people died each day, the report says.

The Atlantic route to the Canary Islands has three primary exit points: southern Morocco, Mauritania, and Senegal, while there are also dangerous maritime crossings of the Mediterranean Sea, albeit in lesser numbers and involving far fewer deaths. The land routes to the Spanish enclaves in North Africa – Ceuta and Melilla – have seen a significant fall in traffic in recent years.

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Some 83% of the 7,270 people who arrived in the Canary Islands in January 2024 – a 1,184% increase compared to the same month in 2023 – left from Mauritania, representing a major shift from previous years when most came from Senegal.

“Currently, most migrants are departing from Mauritania with different profiles. We're seeing a significant increase in the number of women, as well as younger migrants and a wider range of nationalities from the Sahel region,” Helena Maleno, the director of Ca-minando Fronteras, told The New Humanitarian. “We're also witnessing a concerning rise in the number of disappearances along this route.”

The research team found that search and rescue resources were not always being activated by the Spanish authorities, leading to more deaths at sea. “The performance of rescue services is still very poor, with arbitrary practices and insufficient means, resorting to passive search methods,” the report noted.

The impact of EU ‘partnerships’ 

The European Union and EU member states have been accused of doubling down on a strategy of partnering with third countries to try to reduce migration along particular routes, resulting in rights abuses in countries like Libya and Tunisia, and in migrants feeling pressured to undertake more dangerous crossings, such as the Atlantic one.

“When a route is shut, another one opens up,” Sani Ladan, a Madrid-based migration expert, told The New Humanitarian.

Since a June 2022 incident in which 23 migrants and asylum seekers – mostly from Sudan – were killed as a crowd marched on the Melilla border fence, Morocco has cracked down on migration, with EU and Spanish support.

Some migrants have turned to alternative sea routes via Tunisia or Libya, but many have preferred to head to Mauritania and Senegal and try their luck on the Atlantic crossing.

“The majority of those who were already in Morocco actually travelled south, increasing the number of those who choose to migrate to the Canary Islands,” said Ladan. “We are currently in a moment of normalising relations between Morocco and Spain, and the EU by extension, which means that Morocco is actually undertaking the dirty work and has tightened security on its borders.”

EU and Spanish actions could have contributed to the increasing trend in departures from Mauritania too.

As Canary Islands arrivals began to peak last October, Spanish Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska visited Senegal to address the migration crisis, urging the Senegalese authorities to tighten control over their coastline and facilitate repatriations.

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EU border agency Frontex and the Guardia Civil (Spanish Civil Guard) have begun exercising control over Senegalese waters, with the Guardia Civil also operating in cities along the Senegalese and Gambian coasts.

“I’ve been in Senegal and I’ve seen the Guardia Civil barracks in the country. I’ve seen the officers walking around the streets, patrolling in their uniforms,” Ladan said. “They’re present in both Saint-Louis (a migration hub in northwestern Senegal) and in the coasts of [the capital] Dakar.”

Frontex has sought to blame “criminal groups” for the increase in dangerous crossings.

“In recent months criminal groups involved in people smuggling in Mauritania were quick to seize opportunities presented by the increased demand from sub-Saharan migrants transiting their country seeking to enter the European Union via the Canary Islands,” it said in a February statement. “People smugglers have been cramming an increasing number of migrants onto small wooden fishing boats known as Cayucos, putting the lives of the people on board in even larger danger.”

New pact reinforces abusive policies and practices

A month ago, the EU parliament approved the new Migration and Asylum Pact, “a set of new rules managing migration and establishing a common asylum system at EU level, that delivers results while remaining grounded in European values”.

Migration experts and refugee rights advocates have warned, however, that the pact serves to reinforce the bloc’s existing externalisation policies.

In the context of this new agreement, the EU has granted a 7.4 billion euro ($8.1 billion) funding package to Egypt – despite widespread human rights concerns – to hold back migrant flows to Europe. It has also allocated 200 million euros to Mauritania to help curb irregular migration, after Spanish authorities put pressure on the EU.

Spain also provided 30 million euros to Morocco in May 2021 after Moroccan security forces opened the border with Ceuta and allowed 8,000 migrants to cross in one day. Shortly after mending diplomatic relations in April 2022, Spain endorsed Morocco's proposed "autonomy plan" for the disputed Western Sahara territory.

“Two years from now, five years, and so on, we will have increasingly cruel borders, with increasingly precarious situations for the people who take that route,” Gemma Pinyol-Jiménez, director of migration policies at the Instrategies think tank, told The New Humanitarian

According to a recent investigation by Lighthouse Reports, European nations also support, finance, and are directly involved in clandestine operations in North African countries to dump tens of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers in the desert or remote areas each year to prevent them from coming to the EU.

The investigation reports that funds for these desert dumps in Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia have been paid for under the guise of “migration management” with the EU so the money isn’t seen to be supporting human rights abuses.

Turmoil in Senegal

Political events and economic conditions in origin and transit countries have also had an effect on migration trends and routes.

“Between January and June 2023, the majority of people who arrived in Lanzarote [in the Canary Islands], especially from southern Morocco, were Moroccan,” said Txema Santana, a journalist who has covered the route for over a decade. “June marks a turning point in which the Senegalese population joined the Canary Islands route in a decisive way, making it reach its all-time high of 39,900 people.”

A January 2024 Human Rights Watch report reported a sustained government campaign in Senegal to silence opposition media and dissent since 2021. The crackdown targets members of the opposition party, PASTEF (African Patriots of Senegal for Work, Ethics, and Fraternity), which has been deemed illegal.

Some detainees have been beaten and tortured in prison, where they are held in crowded and degrading conditions.

According to Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior researcher for the Sahel region at Human Rights Watch, this translated into “arbitrary arrests and detention of opponents”.

“People are arrested without any warrants. They get really arbitrary charges thrown at them. They can't access their legal counsel,” she told The New Humanitarian.

Some detainees have been beaten and tortured in prison, where they are held in crowded and degrading conditions, Allegrozzi added.

One of the young men who left for the Canary Islands in June 2023 was 32-year-old Asaan Baakir, a bus driver who doubled as a tourist guide and real estate agent – working along with his older brother to support their family.

When protests erupted in May 2023 in Dakar against former president Macky Sall – accused of imprisoning then-opposition leader Ousmane Sonko (now prime minister) to disqualify him from presidential elections – Baakir joined the demonstrations, emerging as a leader in his hometown: the fishing village and popular tourist spot of M'Bour.

“I was told when and where a demonstration was going to take place, and I would gather groups of people and then take them there,” said Baakir, who spoke to The New Humanitarian on the condition he could use an alias for security reasons.

In late June, Baakir said he and a fellow protester were ambushed, chased down by police, and thrown into the back of a pickup truck: He and several others were brutally beaten by four officers.

“They kicked me in my face,” he said, pointing at a scar there and three others, two on his arm and one on his back.

Baakir said he saw a chance to escape when police stopped to confront another group of protesters. He sought refuge at a friend's house.

He described what awaited him the next morning. After torturing a friend to get his address, police had raided his home. The raid terrified his mother, triggering a panic attack and leaving her with permanent paralysis on her left side.

“I then decided to not go back,” he told The New Humanitarian.

His friend searched for a boat leaving the country. Three days later, Baakir hopped on a small wooden boat bound for the Canary Islands, leaving everything, including his pregnant wife, behind.

‘I didn’t come here to sleep or lie down’

After hopping on that overcrowded dinghy, Baakir and the 41 other passengers spent more than eight days at sea, from 5-13 July.

Exhausted after three days without food or water and five days of rough seas, they finally stumbled ashore on Tenerife, another of the Canary Islands. Baakir, battered and blistered, was rushed to a nearby hospital, where he spent two days recovering.

Baakir would go on to spend 27 days in Tenerife before being relocated along with a larger group of migrants to Madrid, where he told his story to ACCEM, a humanitarian aid NGO that works to improve the living conditions of people in vulnerable situations. He then lived for a while in a Red Cross shelter where he shared a room, and was provided 50 euros each month, which he sent to his family in Senegal.

He has a Red Cross registration document, which offers little security. Many undocumented migrants, if not deported, end up with expulsion orders. They cannot get residency permits, forcing them to work illegally for little money, and shelters only offer temporary refuge.

“I thought that when I arrived in Spain, I would immediately be guaranteed security,” said Baakir. “However, I don't feel safe here, because I don't have any papers that prove that I am safe.” The young man finally moved to Barcelona, where he is currently working without legal documentation.

According to CEAR, the Spanish Commission for Refugee Aid, there are still enormous difficulties in accessing the asylum procedure throughout Spain. Over 163,000 people applied for asylum in 2023, a 37% increase from the previous year, which was already a record.

Reaching Spain alive was a milestone for Baakir, but his journey to a secure and dignified life in the country has only just begun. “My only goal is to work and support my wife and family,” he said. “I didn't come here to sleep or lie down." 

Edited by Tom Brady and Andrew Gully.


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