Sandstone cliffs at Cap Blanc, near Nouadihibou, Mauritania | Photo: Imago/imagebroker/M.Runkel
Sandstone cliffs at Cap Blanc, near Nouadihibou, Mauritania | Photo: Imago/imagebroker/M.Runkel

A boat carrying around 190 migrants was intercepted by the Mauritanian coast guard on Friday, the UN migration agency said. This comes less than two days after 63 migrants drowned when their vessel sank in the same waters en route from The Gambia. The country's president has vowed to crack down on people traffickers.

After the recovery of five additional bodies, the death toll from last Wednesday's sinking of a fishing boat rose to 63 over the weekend, according to news agencies AP and dpa. The boat was headed northward toward Spain's Canary Islands from the small coastal town of Barra in the Gambia.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said at least 150 people were traveling on the boat. According to one of the survivors, the boat may have been carrying up to 200 people, as rfi reported. Around 80 survived by swimming ashore.

Separately, the Mauritanian coast guard on Friday intercepted a vessel carrying around 190 Gambian migrants headed for Spain's Canary Islands, a Mauritanian security source told news agency AFP.

Initial estimates said the boat was carrying between 150 and 180 migrants. They are in the process of being identified by the local authorities, said Laura Lungarotti, chief of the IOM in Mauritania.

Uptick in attempted crossings

The incidents are indicative of a resurgence in the number of people willing to risk the perilous and poorly monitored sea passage along West Africa's coast to Spain's Canary Islands, which was a major route for those seeking jobs and a better life in Europe until Spain stepped up patrols in the mid-2000s, Reuters writes.

"It is part of this trend of an increasing number of people passing through this route because the central Mediterranean route has been stopped due to the Libya situation," Lungarotti told Reuters.

In Italy, the number of migrant arrivals dropped significantly after the Italian government focused its policies on stopping migration to its shores from Libya in 2016. 

From January to December this year, some 14,000 people arrived irregularly in Europe via the central Mediterranean route, down from nearly 25,000 in 2018.

Recently, however, there has been a rise in migrant boats departing from Libya: In late November, at least 9 boats with more than 600 migrants on board were discovered on the central Mediterranean route in only 48 hours, according to IOM.

Screenshot of Western Africa region with Spains Canary Islands in the top middle  Credit Google MapsThe Canary Islands are located roughly 1,000 kilometers north of Mauritania’s capital on the Atlantic coast, Nouakchott, and some 1,600 kilometers north of the capital of The Gambia, Banjul.

According to IOM, some 158 people are known to have died trying to reach the Canary Islands so far this year. That's almost four times as many as last year, when 43 people died.

'National tragedy'

"To lose 60 young lives at sea is a national tragedy and a matter of grave concern to my government," Gambian President Adama Barrow said on national television. "A full police investigation has been launched to get to the bottom of this serious national disaster. The culprits will be prosecuted according to law," AFP cited Barrow as saying.

Last Wednesday's sinking off Mauritania with at least 63 deaths was one of the deadliest incidents along this route in recent years. According to IOM, it is the largest known loss of life along the so-called western migration route this year, and this year's sixth deadliest migrant capsizings globally.

The boat was attempting to reach the Canary Islands when their boat hit a rock. 87 people survived the disaster by swimming ashore, IOM said.

President Barrow further said funds had been sent to Mauritania to cater to the immediate needs of the survivors admitted to hospital and to finance their repatriation. According to IOM, more than 35,000 Gambian migrants left the small country of just over 2 million and arrived in Europe between 2014 and 2018.

The Gambia to crack down on traffickers

On Saturday, Barrow vowed to punish people traffickers as the country mourned the deaths of the Europe-bound migrants. Barrow pledged to "fast track prosecution of cases involving human trafficking." Law enforcement officials were "instructed to increase surveillance and arrest... criminals involved in human trafficking," he said.  

A 22-year oppressive rule of former President Yahya Jammeh, Barrow's predecessor, adversely affected the country's economy. This contributed to the high number of people trying to migrate to Europe, many of whom ended up stranded in Libya and Niger. Since Jammeh was forced to cede power in 2017, however, some Gambians have started to return.

In regards to the boat intercepted by the Mauritanian coast guard on Friday, Barrow said "Arrangements have been made to transport them" back to Banjul. 

With material from Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa

 

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