The deadly side of Spain’s seas

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deaths at sea

The sea off the coast of southern Spain and the Canary Islands, where millions of people enjoy their sun holidays every year, also has a side where the sun does not shine. In the first five months of 2024, the number of fatalities on the maritime routes to Spain is unprecedented.

More than 5,000 people died during their journey on rickety vessels to Europe. With an average of 33 deaths per day, in light of the severe lack of search and rescue resources in combination with a well-oiled network of human smugglers, this is a true ‘carnage’. According to the NGO Caminando Fronteras, the Atlantic route to the Canary Islands remains the deadliest with 4,808 deaths. It is also the route with the most fatalities worldwide.

Shocking numbers of deaths at sea

In total, more than 23,000 people entered Spain via sea routes in 2024. The route to the Canary Islands showed a record with more than 18,000 people. Until the end of May, 154 women, 50 children and 4,850 men and young people have lost their lives on these dangerous routes, according to the Caminando Fronteras Observatory of Human Rights. “47 boats have completely disappeared with all those on board,” the organisation warns.

Helena Maleno of Caminando Fronteras emphasises that the current figures are unprecedented in more than 20 years of monitoring human rights violations on Spain’s southern border. She points to Spain’s bilateral agreements with other border countries. They emphasise the prevention of funerals without protocols to guarantee the right to life at sea. “We see a major lack of search and rescue resources when reporting missing boats. That has contributed to the increasing number of victims in these five months,” Maleno complains.

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The most dangerous migration route

The Atlantic route remains the most dangerous. Last year many people were driven by political and social conflicts in Senegal, but this year most migrants come from Mauritania and the Sahel. “Even in the coldest months of winter, the route to the Canary Islands remains active. People are fleeing wars, the consequences of extractivism and climate change,” Maleno explains. “States must strengthen their search and rescue resources because no one should die crossing borders,” she stressed.

Other risky routes

In addition to the Canary Islands, the routes from Algeria to Almería or the Comunidad Valenciana and through the Strait of Gibraltar have also claimed victims. The Algerian route had 246 deaths, while 24 people died trying to reach Ceuta by swimming and 47 died on the Alborán Sea route, according to data collected by Caminando Fronteras.

Consequences of political indifference

The NGO organisation has noted a significant decrease in departing boats from Senegal and Gambia. Nevertheless, people warn that attention to the arrivals fuels racist rhetoric and the rise of the extreme right in Europe. “States do not register the victims and do not analyse who is responsible. They are also not interested in preventing these deaths,” says Maleno. She points out that local leaders in Mauritania and Mali are taking action to identify victims and provide information to their families. “These 5,000 victims represent a massacre and have an enormous impact on their societies of origin,” Maleno concludes.

Also read: More than 6.600 migrants died in 2023 on their way to the Spanish coast


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