It’s ‘suicide in small boats’ on migrant route to Canaries
As another wave slammed down on the punctured dinghy, Camara Ibrahima Sury used all his strength to cling on to the thin rope that ran along the side of the flimsy vessel. It had shredded his fingers but it was stopping him from drowning.
Near by, dozens of others were grabbing at anything or anyone to try to stay above the cold, dark waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
Those who could swim risked their own lives to save people who went under. Those still in the boat reached into the sea to grab the hands of fellow passengers who were in danger of sinking.
Sury, 25, could not swim. If he let go of the rope, he knew he would drown. But the other side of the boat had already deflated. “I thought it was the end,” he said.
Instead Sury, a gardener from Guinea, was lucky. Twenty hours after leaving the coast of Morocco — eight of them spent being battered by the waves after the boat deflated — he stepped on to Gran Canary, an island better known by Britons for its winter sun than as a migration hotspot.
Four of the 55 people with Sury did not make it. One was a woman who had been gripping the rope next to him. She was swept away.
Until recently few migrants risked making the treacherous crossing that he had survived. Over the past two years, however, the Canary Islands have become a key destination for migrants who try to make it to Europe.
In 2017 only 421 irregular migrants came to the Canaries. By 2019 it was 2,700. Then, in 2020-21 more than 42,000 arrived — nearly all of them north and sub-Saharan Africans travelling in small boats.
A report published last week by Caminando Fronteras, a Spanish human rights NGO, found that an average of 12 people a day died as they tried to reach Spain by boat last year. The Canary Islands route was by far the deadliest: 4,016 people died in 124 vessels, according to the group.
The UNHCR refugee agency and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) give lower estimates of the number of deaths on that route. They say, however, that the number is likely to be far higher.
Half a dozen experts, including government officials, interviewed last week said they believed that the death toll cited by Caminando Fronteras was probable or reasonable.
“There are more people on this road, and more people dying,” said Txema Santana, an immigration adviser to the vice-president of the Canary Islands regional government, adding that at this time of year “there is more wind, more waves, and it’s very dangerous for the people.
“It’s suicide in plastic boats.”
Oussama Elbaroudi of the IOM said last year was the deadliest 12 months on the migration routes to Spain since the organisation began to keep a record in 2014, Oussama Elbaroudi, of the IOM, said. An unusually large proportion of the dead, he said, were women and children.
“What is also very preoccupying is that unfortunately the one certainty we have is that these figures are underestimated,” he said.
The surge, say NGOs, diplomats and migrants, is being caused by a complicated range of factors, from instability and conflict in the Sahel, to Covid-19 lockdowns, climate change and overfishing by European companies off west Africa.
A clampdown by European nations on the migration routes from north Africa across the Strait of Gibraltar and the Mediterranean to Spain and Italy might also have led to more people travelling to Europe via the Atlantic.
While the majority of migrants, according to the UNHCR, are from Morocco, Mali, the Ivory Coast, Guinea and Senegal, most leave from Morocco, part of which is only 30 miles from the Canaries. The journey takes from one to three days and the smugglers charge about €2,000.
Others embark from as far away as Gambia or Senegal, a journey of at least 1,500km, and they can spend more than a week on the ocean before sighting the Canaries.
The shorter routes have become deadlier as smugglers turn from using wooden pateras (open, flat-bottomed boats) to inflatable plastic boats, such as that used by Sury, to travel from Morocco.
“Departing from Mauritania, Senegal and Gambia is very risky because of the huge distance to the Canary Islands, but the boats used on that route are stronger,” María González, of Caminando Fronteras, said. “The inflatables are the most risky. Many boats are already broken or punctured at the point of departure.”
Sailors have known for centuries that the Atlantic’s trade winds can be both a curse and a blessing and a curse, bringing storms and towering waves but also the lure of a fast passage.
In small boats with inexperienced people at the helm, the tiniest miscalculation or simple stroke of bad luck can mean being blown thousands of miles off course — or sinking. Several pateras have washed up on the beaches of the Caribbean and South America, with only corpses on board.
In the Canarias 50 camp in Las Palmas, where hundreds of migrants wait to be processed and sent to the Spanish mainland to have their applications to stay in Europe assessed, rumours abound of the madness that can take hold after days at sea without food and water.
“Sometimes you see the devils in the boat, but they are not there,” said Saidou Jallo, 20, from Gambia. “Sometimes you see your mother, your father, your sister. But they’re not there.”
Many migrants will apply for asylum, or to join relatives living in Europe. Some will be deported while others will be allowed to remain.
The camp is not closed off, and the migrants, most of them young men, can wander around at will, often heading to the beaches to video-call their families.
Although there has been some tension with locals, most Canarians I spoke to said they did not see the migrants as a major issue as long as they continued to be moved promptly to the mainland. Most locals were concentrating instead on rebuilding the island’s tourist industry, which has been hit badly by the pandemic.
“This is an unprecedented catastrophe, so I feel ashamed [that] I’m Canarian, but it’s like some people don’t pay attention,” said Manuel Cabezudo, co-founder of Atlas, an association on Gran Canaria that works with migrants.
“You can have your political approach, you know, your ideology, but we were witness to kids dying, women dying, pregnant women: we’ve been part of all these things.
“It’s like a war zone, you know. But here people don’t pay attention. It’s really, really, really sad.”
For Sury, surviving the near-sinking of his boat was, he hopes, the beginning of a new life. He had left his family in a village in Guinea four years ago and gone to Conakry, the country’s capital, to make a living. After a few years, he moved to Morocco, where he worked as a labourer to save enough money for the crossing.
When he boarded the flimsy plastic boat in Morocco last month, he knew the risk. He knew that he could die. But if he survived, he thought, it would be worth it.
“I work for myself, I don’t need any help,” he said. “I can go anywhere and find work and look after myself. I want to live.”