The number of migrants and asylum seekers who reached Europe in 2020 is the lowest it has been for a decade. But deaths and disappearances on sea routes – especially to the Canary Islands – remain alarmingly high, says a UN Migration report.
Despite the coronavirus pandemic, last year saw 93,000 people enter Europe irregularly, according to the UN migration agency, IOM. More than 90% crossed the Mediterranean Sea or took the Atlantic Ocean route to Spain's Canary Islands.
In addition to those who managed to reach Europe, a further 2,000 people lost their lives in the attempt, and already this year another 300 deaths have been documented by the IOM. A report by the IOM's Missing Migrants Project (MMP) says this is a humanitarian crisis which remains unaddressed.
Frank Laczko, the director of the IOM's Global Migration Data Analysis Center, called on the EU and African countries to prioritize safe and humane migration management. "No one should have to risk their life to flee violence or instability, or to simply seek a better life," he said.
Last year saw a 750% increase in the number of arrivals on the Canary Islands. According to the MMP report published Friday, the number of recorded deaths on the highly dangerous route also jumped to 850 in 2020, far more than in any previous year since its work began in 2014.
The route to the Canaries is dangerous partly because of the distance. The nearest crossing point in Morocco is 95 km from the islands, but most people leave from Dakhla in Morocco or Nouadhibou in Mauritania, which are around 450 km and 775 km respectively. Migrants are often at sea for days or weeks without enough food and water for the journey, according to the MMP report.
The MMP says the true number of deaths on maritime routes is much higher than the data show. For example, at least five migrant shipwrecks reported by NGOs in 2020 could not be included in official data because they could not be verified. These "invisible" shipwrecks left no survivors and no search-and-rescue operation is known to have happened in response to distress calls made by those on board.
According to IOM data obtained by the news agency AP there were at least 19 cases of invisible shipwrecks in the Atlantic and Mediterranean in 2020, with 571 people reported missing.
With major gaps in the available data, thousands of families are left searching endlessly for news of the missing. Migrants who lose their lives on the Canary Islands route are often buried without a name, if they are buried at all, the IOM says. In addition, the remains of at least 1,000 people known to have crossed the Atlantic have not been recovered, according to Missing Migrants Project data.
"The true crisis on maritime routes to Europe is the thousands of deaths recorded every year due to the lack of safe, legal and dignified mobility options," said Julia Black, author of the report. "Improved search-and-rescue capacities on all maritime routes to Europe are urgently needed."
The report "Maritime Migration to Europe: focus on the overseas route to the Canary Islands" is available here.