Majority of migrants who drown trying to reach Spain are never found

Fewer than a quarter of the more than 1,000 migrants who died crossing the Mediterranean to Spain from North Africa since the start of 2018 have been found, a Spanish group said Tuesday.

Majority of migrants who drown trying to reach Spain are never found
Handwritten notes are stuck on a boat used by migrants on Los Canos de Meca beach in Barbate. Photos by Jorge Guerrero / AFP

The remains of 204 migrants were retrieved of the 1,020 who disappeared while attempting the crossing between January 1st, 2018 and April 30th, 2019, migrant rights NGO Caminando Fronteras or “Walking Borders”in English, said in a report.

There are certainly other” victims, Caminando Fronteras head Helena Maleno told a news conference.

“But we are certain of these cases because our job is to investigate with the families, to put a name to each (victim) and document how these shipwrecks happen. Families are being denied the right to mourn,” she added.

The group's figures are close to those of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) which found that 952 migrants died or were missing while trying to reach Spain from North Africa since the start of 2018.

Following crackdowns on immigration by Italy and other countries, Spain last year became the preferred route to Europe for migrants although those numbers started falling dramatically at the start of this year.

Many have crossed the 15-kilometre (9-mile) Strait of Gibraltar from Morocco, often in small, overcrowded inflatable boats unfit for open waters.   

Activists accuse European countries of leaving sea rescues to Morocco and other North African countries with fewer resources and experience, potentially putting lives in danger.

Maleno said Spain was doing “practically the same thing” as Italy's hardline Interior Minister Matteo Salvini and “withdrawing” from migrant rescues in “a more disguised way”.

Spanish Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska said last week that Spain's policy regarding the rescue of migrants has not changed.   

Twelve boats carrying migrants to Spain have gone missing in the Mediterranean Sea since the start of 2018, according to Caminando Fronteras.   

“These tragedies are the most distressing and hurtful because of their impact, no survivor can establish a story and the truth of the disappearances,” the group wrote in its report.

READ ALSO: FOCUS: Migrants keep crossing Strait of Gibraltar despite bad weather

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How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.