From file: Pieces of a damaged boat carrying migrants from Senegal after it capsized near Cape Verde on November 19, 2020 | Photo: Jorge Avelino/Reuters
From file: Pieces of a damaged boat carrying migrants from Senegal after it capsized near Cape Verde on November 19, 2020 | Photo: Jorge Avelino/Reuters

Dozens of people are still missing and feared dead after a wooden boat capsized off the coast of Senegal last week. It's the latest tragedy in a country where thousands have tried to migrate to Spain's Atlantic Canary Islands by sea.

According to the AFP news agency citing a military statement and a local official, the Senegalese navy was carrying out a search and rescue (SAR) mission on Saturday (August 28) after a boat capsized earlier last week.

AFP reported that "the boat flipped over" around 15 kilometers off the northern port city of Saint Louis, according to the official, who asked not to be identified. The accident happened on Wednesday night (August 25), the navy statement said.

Map showing northwestern Africa and Spain's Canary Islands. The distance between Saint Louis and Gran Canaria is over 1,300 kilometers | Credit: Google Maps
Map showing northwestern Africa and Spain's Canary Islands. The distance between Saint Louis and Gran Canaria is over 1,300 kilometers | Credit: Google Maps


According to AFP, rescue crews picked up eight Senegalese and three Gambians Saturday night and found the body of one person who had drowned. Some 60 people were thought to have been on board at the time of the shipwreck.

"Senegalese migrants have long risked their lives at sea aboard small fishing boats for a chance to reach Europe, and the economic hardships brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic have led to a resurgence of attempts," the Associated Press (AP) news agency reported.

Many are headed to the Canary Islands, the Spanish archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean off the northwestern coast of Africa. According to the UN migration agency IOM, Senegalese were the second-largest group of migrants arriving on the Canaries last year. People from Mauritania made up the largest group.

Also read: Leaving Senegal: 'Three of my friends died at sea. I set off the day after they died.'

Dangerous Atlantic crossing

In the last four months of 2020 alone, almost 20,000 African migrants landed on the shores of the Canaries, overwhelming authorities and arrival facilities. After initially being put up in hotels and other touristic facilities, mostly empty due to the coronavirus pandemic, thousands were moved to camps whose conditions have been criticized by rights groups.

The risks of crossing the Atlantic are very high. The ocean has strong currents, and attempting to cross it is a lot more dangerous than crossing the Mediterranean.

According to the latest official figures released by the IOM, almost 300 people have died so far this year on the route to the Canary Islands. Unofficially, that figure could be much higher: More than two thirds of those who go missing at sea are never recovered, the IOM says.

"Those traveling by sea have often been refused visas for European countries but take the risk of a perilous voyage for the chance to earn enough money to support their families back home," AP reported.

Senegalese authorities have been trying to discourage people from leaving, for which the country received assistance from the EU. Among other things, Spain last November promised to increase its police presence in Senegal in order to be better able to crack down on migrant smuggling networks.

It also announced it would send additional patrol vessels and a maritime observation plane to support the existing Spanish forces. Many boats departing in the dark makes detecting and stopping them difficult, though.

Also read: Dying to reach Europe - the Atlantic crossing

with AP, AFP

 

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