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MIGRATION

What happens when migrants go missing on the Atlantic route to Spain

Hamido had heard nothing from his wife and child in 10 days since they set sail from Western Sahara for the Canary Islands - but then a boat was found with many dead onboard.

Malian migrant
The Atlantic route is extremely hazardous for the small, overloaded boats battling strong currents. Photo: Lluis Gené/AFP

Frantic and distraught, Hamido — an Ivorian national working in France — tried to contact the Spanish police and the authorities in Gran Canaria for news of his family.

But no one could help him, so he flew to the island where he learned via the media that his wife had died on the boat, and his six-year-old daughter — who had watched her die — was completely traumatised.

“This man contacted us, he was absolutely desperate because no one would give him any information,” said Helena Maleno of Caminando Fronteras, a Spanish NGO that helps migrant boats in distress and families searching for loved ones.

For worried relatives, trying to find information about people lost on the notoriously dangerous route to the Spanish Atlantic archipelago can be a nightmare.

Deadliest year since 1997

In fact, 2021 has been a particularly deadly year for migrants trying to reach Spain, via either the Atlantic or the Mediterranean.

“The data show that 2021 seems to be the deadliest year on record since 1997, surpassing 2020 and 2006 as the two years with the highest recorded deaths,” said MMP’s Marta Sánchez Dionis.

According to figures compiled with Spanish human rights organisation, APDHA, 10,236 people died between 1997 and 2021.

But both organisations concede that the real number “could be much higher”.

Emergency personnel disembark the body of a deceased migrant in the port of Arguineguín, Gran Canaria. Photo: Lluis Gené
Emergency personnel disembark the body of a deceased migrant in the port of Arguineguín, Gran Canaria. Photo: Lluis Gené
 

Caminando Fronteras — which tracks data from boats in distress, including the number of people on board — calculates that 2,087 people died or went missing in the Atlantic in the first half of 2021, compared with 2,170 for the whole of 2020.

It was in late 2019 that the number of migrant arrivals in the Canaries began to rise, after increased patrols along Europe’s southern coast reduced Mediterranean crossings.

But the numbers really took off in mid-2020 as the pandemic took hold, and so far this year, 20,148 have reached the archipelago, MMP figures show.

The Atlantic route is extremely hazardous for the small, overloaded boats battling strong currents, with MMP saying “the vast majority of departures” were from distant ports in Western Sahara, Mauritania or even Senegal some 1,500 kilometres (900 miles) to the south.

Boats become coffins

The migrants hope that the boats will carry them to a new life in Europe, but for many, the vessels end up becoming their coffins.

“I knew getting the boat was no good, but there was war in Mali and things were very difficult,” says ‘Mamadou’, who left Nouadibou in Mauritania on a boat with 58 people in August 2020.

After three days at sea, food and water ran out, and people began to die, images which still haunt him today.

Wandering through the “boat cemetery” at Gran Canaria’s Arinaga port, the lanky teen falls silent as he looks at the shabby wooden hulls, overwhelmed by memories of the two weeks he and his fellow passengers spent lost at sea.

He was one of just 11 survivors.

“A lot of people died at sea. They didn’t make it…,” he says, a vacant look in his eyes.

“Their families know they’ve gone to Spain, but they don’t know where they are.”

Rescuers found five bodies in the boat. The rest had been thrown overboard, joining a growing list of uncounted dead.

Teodoro Bondyale, sociologist and secretary of the Federation of African Associations in the Canary Islands
Teodoro Bondyale, sociologist and secretary of the Federation of African Associations in the Canary Islands. Photo: Lluis Gené/AFP
 

“These people shouldn’t be dying,” says Teodoro Bondyale of the Federation of African Associations in the Canary Islands (FAAC), standing by the grave of a Malian toddler who died in March, a faded blue teddy still perched on the mound of earth.

At least 83 children died en route to the Canary Islands this year, MMP figures show.

“If migration could be done normally with a passport and a visa, people could travel and try and improve their lives. And if it didn’t work, they could go home,” he told AFP.

“But we are forcing them to travel on dangerous migratory routes, trafficked by unscrupulous people where the risk of dying is very high.”

More boats, more deaths

“Day after day the situation is getting worse, the number of boats and deaths this year has increased much more than last year,” immigration lawyer Daniel Arencibia told AFP.

“The situation is complicated at a political level because there is no single body in charge of managing the search for the missing.

“So it’s down to the families themselves and the people helping them. But many times they never find them.”

Catholic priest and Claretian missionary José Antonio Benítez helps families to look for their loved ones who died or disappeared when trying to reach the Canary archipelago from the African coast.Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP)
Catholic priest and Claretian missionary José Antonio Benítez helps families to look for their loved ones who died or disappeared when trying to reach the Canary archipelago from the African coast.Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP)

José Antonio Benítez, a Catholic priest, uses his extensive network of contacts among the authorities and NGOs to try to help distraught families.

“My role is to make it easier for families to get the clearest possible picture of where they might find their loved ones. Without a body, we cannot be sure a person has died, but we can tell them they’ve not been found in any of the places they should be,” he says.

But even then, bureaucratic red tape and rigid data protection laws can often cause more suffering.

Such was the case with several Moroccan family members who flew over after the coastguard found a boat on which 10 North Africans lost their lives.

“They spent several days going round all the hospitals, but nobody gave them any answers because you have to have documentary proof that you are a relative,” Benítez told AFP.

 

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