2021 most deadly year for illegal immigrants to Spain

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Immigrants dying in record numbers in 2021

The number of deaths along all migration routes to Spain (Alborán Sea, the Strait of
Gibraltar and the Canary Islands) doubled in 2021 compared to last year. The number of dead immigrants has reached a record high.

With 1,025 victims, this year can already be marked as the most deadly since 2014 when the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) started collecting data on the dead and missing in their attempt to migrate.

It was not the first time bodies had washed up on Almeria’s tourist beaches, but last week there were nine in a matter of days. The bodies, bloated and with their skin ripped off by the sea, washed up between Sunday morning and Wednesday afternoon. They are probably from Algeria, although their features are often unrecognisable. The nine dead, including a four-year-old boy, are the latest to be found on the illegal immigration routes to Spain; but there are dozens of missing people of whom nothing more has been heard.

Most dangerous route via Canary Islands

Although the number of victims on the Algerian route continues to rise, the Atlantic route, which leads to the Canary Islands, is the most dangerous. The number of shipwrecks in August caused many deaths and set alarm bells ringing. In that month alone, 379 people died or disappeared trying to reach the archipelago. That equates to 12 per 24 hours. By 15 September, when 11,600 people had reached the islands, there were already 785 dead, including 50 children. That is double the number of deaths in the same period in 2020.

Read: Dead and hospitalised babies as immigrants reach Canary Islands

Concerns rise

The IOM, which is part of the United Nations, said last Friday it was ‘extremely concerned’ about the increase in the number of victims crossing to the islands. The organisation also pointed out that its calculations are conservative; they only include verified events. There are also many ghost shipwrecks. The NGO Caminando Fronteras counted nearly 2,000 victims on this route in the first six months of the year alone.

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No seaworthy boats

Although in the Canary Islands the increase in deaths and disappearances has matched the increase in immigrants arriving, experts warn that this correlation does not always hold true. There is no single explanation for the rise in mortality. However, refugees following the Atlantic route have seen the sea filled with inflatable boats in recent months. The occupants have often submerged and drowned. These boats, which are also used by drug traffickers, are small, not sturdy, overloaded and not equipped for the high seas. They break down, their engines fail and their occupants fall overboard.


In addition to the use of dangerous boats, there is also a huge migratory pressure waiting on the coasts of Morocco, Western Sahara and Mauritania. Many people are waiting to leave. The pressure is causing more people to embark to take advantage of the good weather. The most favourable conditions only occur in September, October and November. This year was unlucky. Migrants often leave in good conditions, but the weather can change completely in the middle of the journey.

Travel is increasingly risky

The survivors’ testimonies show journeys are becoming increasingly risky. According to the IOM, one of the seven survivors of a boat with 54 people on board said that after three days at sea they lost their engine and ran out of food and water. The boat was adrift for a fortnight and capsized off the coast of Mauritania in mid-August. “People were dying,'”he said. ‘Their bodies were thrown into the sea so the boat would not become too heavy and we would all die. There were people who looked like they had gone mad, they were biting each other, screaming and throwing themselves into the sea.”

Disturbing figures

The figures for deaths in the Strait of Gibraltar and the Alborán Sea, the westernmost part of the Mediterranean Sea between Spain and Morocco and Algeria are worrying. On 15 September, there were 240 recorded deaths, almost double the 131 in 2020. This is the second highest number.  In comparison, there were only 505 recorded in 2018, when 57,500 immigrants arrived by boat, an all-time high.

Spain has the second deadliest route to reach the EU after Italy. But the difference is small and only in absolute numbers. Italy has already recorded 1,118 deaths, out of 43,000 arrivals, i.e. one death for every 40 who managed to reach the EU. In Spain, where 1,025 people died and more than 24,000 immigrants arrived, one person died for every 23 boat people who managed to get ashore.

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