Spanish authorities rescued 86 people Monday from a boat near the Canary Islands that appeared to be from Senegal, after an aid group reported that three boats from the African country went missing with 300 people aboard.
Spain’s Maritime Rescue Service said it could not confirm that the rescued boat was one of the three reported missing but told The Associated Press that the vessel was a multi-colored, 20-meter-long (65-foot-long) canoe of the type known in Senegal as a pirogue.
Eighty men and six women of sub-Saharan origin were rescued and expected to reach Spanish soil Monday evening, the Spanish agency said. It also said it had alerted boats sailing in Atlantic waters between the Canary Islands and West Africa to be on the lookout for other migrant boats still missing.
Helena Maleno Garzon, coordinator for the aid group Walking Borders, which is known as Caminando Fronteras in Spanish, said earlier Monday that the three missing boats had departed Senegal in late June.
Two boats departed June 23 from Mbour, a coastal city in central Senegal, carrying about 100 people, and a third left the southern town of Kafountine four days later with approximately 200 people, Garzon said.
There has been no contact with the boats since their departures, she said.
“The most important thing is to find those people. There are many people missing in the sea. This isn’t normal. We need more planes to look for them,” Garzon told The Associated Press.
The Atlantic migration route is one of the deadliest in the world, with nearly 800 people dying or going missing in the first half of 2023, according to Walking Borders.
In recent years, the Canary Islands have become one of the main destinations for people trying to reach Spain, with a peak of more than 23,000 migrants arriving in 2020, according to Spain’s Interior Ministry. In the first six months of this year, more than 7,000 migrants and refugees reached the Canaries.
One of the deadliest mass drownings of Europe-bound migrants happened last month on the Mediterranean Sea, where more than 500 people were presumed dead off the coast of Greece. Criticism has mounted over the European Union’s yearslong failure to prevent such tragedies.
Boats that go missing often aren’t documented. Some are never found or are discovered across the world years later. An AP investigation published this year found that at least seven migrant boats from northwest Africa, likely trying to reach the Canary Islands in 2021, drifted to the Caribbean and Brazil.
The boats mainly travel from Morocco, Western Sahara and Mauritania, with fewer coming from Senegal, the Spanish aid group said. However, at least 19 boats from Senegal have arrived in the Canary Islands since June, the group said.
Factors such as ailing economies, a lack of jobs, extremist violence, political unrest and the impact of climate change push migrants to risk their lives on overcrowded boats to reach the Canaries. Last month in Senegal, at least 23 people were killed during weeks of protests between opposition supporters and police.
‘I am still believing’
A woman whose 19- and 24-year-old sons left on one of the boats from Mbour in June told the AP they had a goal of trying to pull the family out of poverty.
Daw Demba, 48, said she discovered her sons’ secret plans days before they left and tried to convince them not to. They assured her it would be safe because the captain had made the trip safely multiple times, she said.
“I am desperate to hear the voices of my sons. I am convinced they are still alive,” Demba said through tears in a phone interview from her home in Mbour. “Every moment, every second, I am still believing.”
Before they departed, she armed her sons, Massou Seck and Serigne Galaye Seck, with traditional spiritual items, including a bottle of water that had been blessed and Quranic paper with their names written on it for protection.
Walking Borders’ Maleno said she had been in contact with the Moroccan, Spanish and Mauritanian marines and that more needs to be done to look for the missing boats.
“Imagine if there (were) 300 American people missing at sea. What (would) happen? Many planes will look for them,” she said.