Sea route to Spain claimed lives of 4,000 migrants in 2021

Number of deaths soars after dozens of boats capsize on their way to the Canary Islands

Red Cross workers take care of migrants who arrived on a beach on Lanzarote in Spain's Canary Islands. EPA
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More than 4,000 migrants died or disappeared at sea while trying to reach Spain in 2021, an aid group revealed.

The western route to Europe last year proved twice as deadly as in 2020 as dozens of boats went down before they could reach Spain’s Canary Islands off the coast of Africa.

There were 124 separate shipwrecks on that route, said the rights group Walking Borders, while others perished trying to reach the Spanish mainland.

“These are painful figures,” said Maria Gonzalez Rollan, one of the authors of an annual report by the charity.

She said there were 628 women and 205 children among the missing, a greater proportion of female migrants than previously.

“Entire families are seeing their right to life violated on our borders,” the NGO said.

It counted 4,404 deaths or disappearances in 2021, compared with 2,170 the previous year. The migrants came from at least 21 countries.

But the exact toll is unclear because at least 83 boats went missing with no survivors, leaving nobody alive to give details of what happened. Rescuers found fewer than one in 10 of the bodies of those presumed dead.

In addition, the charity “still lacks the necessary tools to reach everything that happens on the border”, despite its best efforts, it said.

Journeys to the Canary Islands – which include the popular holiday destinations of Tenerife and Lanzarote – began to increase in 2019 after additional patrols along Europe’s southern coast reduced crossings in the Mediterranean.

The western route to Spain takes migrants into the Atlantic Ocean, a hazardous journey for the typically small, overloaded boats battling strong currents.

Emergency personnel help migrants disembark from a rescue vessel in the port of Arguineguin, Gran Canaria. AFP

Aid workers have previously described migrants setting off from distant ports in the Western Sahara, Mauritania or as far away as Senegal in the hope of a new life in Europe.

Shorter journeys were sometimes similarly perilous. At least 102 migrants died trying to cross the Strait of Gibraltar to Spain’s southern coast. Others set off from the coast of Algeria on a route that claimed 95 lives.

A separate crisis flared up last May when thousands of people crossed the land border from Morocco to the Spanish exclave of Ceuta at the tip of North Africa.

It came after Morocco appeared to let its guard down following Spain’s admission of a Western Sahara independence leader to receive hospital treatment.

It was one of several fronts on which Europe faced migratory challenges last year. A previously little-known route via Belarus became a political flashpoint in the EU’s stand-off with its eastern neighbour, with thousands trying to cross.

Elsewhere, smugglers with luxury boats were blamed for opening up a sea route from Turkey to Italy, while a deadly shipwreck in the English Channel strained relations between Britain and France.

Updated: January 04, 2022, 12:15 PM