Over 4,400 people died in boats trying to reach Spain in 2021

NGO Caminando Fronteras denounces lack of coordination and passivity of rescue teams when it comes to saving lives

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Rescue rescues 94 people in two boats in the Canary Islands, with one death

MartorellAt least 4,404 people died at sea in 2021 along the different migratory routes that lead to the Spanish coasts from North Africa; that is, the sea has claimed 12 lives a day. And the trend is increasing, despite the restrictions imposed by covid and the EU's defensive policies at its borders. The figure represents more than double the number of deaths recorded in 2020, which was already the highest since NGO Caminando Fronteres started its records. "4,404 is the minimum. The truth is that there may be more victims and we have no proof," said the spokeswoman for the organisation, Helena Maleno. Of these 4,404 people killed, 205 were young children and 628 were women. Most were travelling with their children looking for an alternative to the harshness of their countries. They are citizens of 21 countries, mainly from sub-Saharan Africa, but also from distant countries such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka or the Comoros Islands, who previously had to travel thousands of kilometres to find their way to Europe.

As already happened in 2020, the Canary Islands was once again the deadliest route, with 4,016 deaths in 124 shipwrecks, and continues as the most dangerous in the world. The migrants leave the coastal arc between Morocco and Gambia to enter the waters of the Atlantic in fragile boats that can withstand neither the force of the waves nor the duration of the journey and, in their attempt to avoid police and coastguards, lose their way and deviate from their initial course. So much so that two of the boats turned up in the Caribbean, on the other side of the ocean, with all passengers onboard dead.

The deadliest route in the world

After years of being an unfrequented route, the Canary Islands route was made a comeback after the European Union's agreements with Turkey and the Libyan coastguards, which made journeys from Algeria or Libya to Greece or Italy almost impossible due to the militarisation of the sea. Those were much shorter routes in much calmer waters in the Mediterranean. In fact, arrivals to the Spanish archipelago of fragile inflatable boats started in late 2020 and, according to the NGO, these boats "have come to stay".

The NGO denounces that mortality on this route was especially high in April, coinciding with the diplomatic crisis between Morocco and Spain, and estimates that in just two weeks 481 people died in a score of shipwrecks. In this sense, the entity chaired by the activist Helena Maleno denounces that migrants are "hostages" of geostrategic interests, since the coordination to activate rescue teams between different countries hinders the rescue and, therefore, causes avoidable deaths. An example of this situation, according to the NGO, is that Spanish Maritime Rescue does not intervene further south than the 35'50 parallel (the maritime border) even if it has the exact location of a drifting boat; and that, on the other hand, Morocco does go beyond this point to carry out migration control tasks.

In its annual report, Caminando Fronteras details how shipwrecked people often have to wait for hours on a barge to be rescued and, without food or water, they die of hunger, thirst, cold or exhaustion. Sometimes, even the Spanish Sea Rescue simply informs the Red Cross. "These are bizarre situations and we do not know if they are due to a political criteria of not rescuing [migrants]," said Maleno, critical of the fact that governments have given up their duty to save lives. She also stressed that private boats and companies that come across shipwrecked people avoid going to help them or inform sea rescue for fear of being criminalized in the midst of a defensive and militarized drift to migration policy.

With less traffic, the departures from Algeria to the Balearic Islands or the Andalusian or Valencian coast have claimed the lives of 191 people in 19 shipwrecks. On this route, the fear of repression by the Algerian government and of being repatriated means migrants choose not to tell anyone of the start of their journey and when families realise that they have lost all contact with the travellers it is already too late to be rescued. The other victims of migration are the 102 people who died crossing the Strait of Gibraltar and the 95 who were passing through the Alboran Sea.

Bodies swallowed by the sea

The 4,404 dead people registered by Caminando Fronteras are 3.5 times those counted by the United Nations Organization for Migration (IOM), which puts the number of deaths on the routes to Spain at 1,255, although it warns that its data is incomplete because it only takes into account bodies which have been recovered. In this sense, the Spanish NGO stresses that 95% of the corpses never appear, swallowed by the immensity of the sea, and warns that the figure may be much higher, because the fact that these people move without ID and fleeing controls makes it difficult to follow their trail. Last year alone 83 boats were shipwrecked without a single survivor who could tell the story of exactly what happened.

Aware that the disappearance of the bodies makes the drama invisible and also denies the families of the dead to complete their mourning, since 2016 Caminando Fronteras has been monitoring the boats that move towards the Spanish coasts with the double objective of identifying and dignifying the victims and giving comfort to the relatives. Thus, the organisation has two hotlines: one for migrants who travel and another for relatives, who can send an SOS message to warn of the danger and activate rescue protocols. It is from the information of both that the entity elaborates its statistics.