An estimated 150 migrants are thought to have died after the wooden boat they were travelling in was shipwrecked off the coast of Senegal on Friday, the latest in a deadly series of accidents for those trying a dangerous sea route around northwest Africa to reach Europe that had become less popular in recent years.
The boat capsized and many of the passengers drowned, according to Alarm Phone, a hotline for migrants stranded at sea, and Senegalese firefighters who saw the aftermath on the beach. It had been less than a week since the last such disaster, in which at least 140 people trying to get to Europe drowned when their boat caught fire.
Both boats had been going to the Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago 60 miles off the Moroccan coast, which in recent months has received dozens of boatloads of travellers as other routes through the Sahara and across the Mediterranean to Europe became more difficult and dangerous.
There has been a resurgence in clandestine emigration by sea, the Senegalese government said in a statement last week. It said it was carrying out surveillance operations by air and by sea, and had arrested 28 people suspected of trafficking migrants.
Fifteen years ago, this was a busy route. In 2006, more than 32,000 migrants from West and Central Africa travelled along the Western Africa maritime route, according to the International Organization for Migration. Last year, just 2,698 arrived in the Canary Islands, which as part of Spain, belong to the European Union. For 2020, this number has grown to more than 6,000 in just the first nine months of the year.
This route to Spain is so dangerous that it has long been known as “Barsa wala Barsakh,” which means “Barcelona or die” in Wolof, Senegal’s most widely-spoken language. But other routes have their own perils: Those who take the one through the Sahara to Libya risk becoming one of tens of thousands of refugees and migrants trapped in the North African country and subjected to grave abuses.
Many European countries, trying to avoid receiving any more migrants, work with the Libyan authorities to ensure that people trying to cross the Mediterranean are captured and sent back, according to human rights organizations. Since 2016, around 60,000 men, women and children have been stopped in this way, Amnesty International said.
Aliou Gningue, who was 18 and about to take his high school graduation exams, was aboard the boat wrecked on Friday, and has not been heard from since, said Ndeye Faye, a relative of his.
“He used to go and work on fishing boats, to make some money for his school fees and to support his mom,” said Faye.
She said she knew two other young men who had been on that boat, which had set off from her hometown Mbour, south of Senegal’s capital, Dakar.
Gningue’s father had helped the boat’s captain find passengers for the trip, Faye said, and in return he had been given two free seats on the boat. He could choose whether to sell them for around $500 apiece, or to give them away, she said. He chose to give them to his two sons.
The Senegalese armed forces have also reported intercepting at least five boats since early October, carrying nearly 500 people. But this does not include the boat that caught fire on Oct. 24 off the coast near the city of Saint-Louis.
Petit Ndiaye, a blogger and head of communication for the city of Saint-Louis, met some of those who escaped from the burning boat, and wrote, “Sadness and despair was written on their faces.”