Spain raced to rescue 200 people on a boat in the Atlantic on Monday after an aid group reported that a ship carrying migrants from Senegal bound for the Canary Islands had not been heard from for nearly two weeks.
Authorities spotted the boat 71 miles south of the island of Gran Canaria, a spokesman for Spain’s Maritime Rescue Agency said, adding that the agency suspected it was the boat reported by the aid group, Caminando Fronteras.
The group said it reported the ship, which left the coastal village of Kafountine, Senegal, in late June, to search and rescue authorities on July 1. Several minors and at least four women were among its passengers, the relief group. said
The aid group said it also reported that two other boats had not been heard from: one with 65 people on board and the other with at least 50 people. Those boats left the town of M’Bour, near Senegal’s capital, on June 23, the aid group said. As of Monday afternoon, there was no search operation for the other two vessels, according to the Marine Rescue spokesperson.
The Canary Islands are a Spanish archipelago about 1,000 miles away from Senegal. That distance would take several days to travel, said Helena Maleno Garzón, founder of Caminando Fronteras, and families of those on board, not receiving any news since their relatives left, contacted the group for help. “They are very shaken,” she said.
Little else was known about the boats, but Ms. Maleno Garzón said they were wooden fishing vessels that were not set up for long-distance voyages, and may not have had access to navigation services. Some of the passengers didn’t tell their families they were leaving, she said, including a father who discovered three of his sons had boarded the boat.
Many migrants have died in recent years trying to cross the Atlantic and the Mediterranean in attempts to reach Europe. In one of the worst such maritime tragedies, last month a boat sailing from Libya capsized, killing hundreds of people off the coast of Greece. Among the victims were women and children trapped below deck.
Critics have accused the Greek authorities of not acting quickly enough to save the sick boat, and human rights groups have called on the European Union to do more to stop the deaths.
European authorities have blamed the problem on people smugglers, and European governments are still grappling with how to deal with migrants. Differences over migration policies have divided governments across the continent, and caused the Dutch government to collapse on Friday.
Illegal immigration to Europe from Senegal has been a recurring problem as young people, facing widespread unemployment under successive governments, have tried to migrate to find work. Crowded wooden fishing boats, known as pirogues, leave Senegalese coastal towns every week with dozens of young people hoping to reach the Canary Islands and then mainland Spain – a phenomenon known in Volola, Senegal’s main language, as “Barka muro Barsax”, or “Barcelona or die trying.”
Movement along the Atlantic route increased after 2019 and during the Covid pandemic, according to a report by the International Organization for Migration, UN agency, but the trips declined last year as Morocco stepped up border patrol efforts at sea. Last year, more than 15,600 people migrated to the Canaries after crossing by boat from West Africa. Many of those on board were migrants from Morocco, Mali and Senegal, the report said.
In mid-June, 10,348 migrants have already arrived in Spain by sea this year, according to report of the Ministry of the Interior of Spain.
Last year, 45 shipwrecks were recorded and 543 migrants died or went missing, the United Nations said, noting that the figure was likely underreported because some shipwrecks were not found.
Elian Peltier contributed reports from Dakar, Senegal and Rachel Chaundler reported from Zaragoza, Spain.