“Invisible shipwrecks” another contributor to migrant deaths


A sharp increase in deaths and disappearances of migrants heading to Spain’s Canary Islands off the West African coast is a cause for “extreme concern” according to the UN migration agency IOM (International Organisation for Migration).

By the end of last month, IOM’s missing migrants project recorded 785 people, including 177 women and 50 children, who died or disappeared this year.

Frank Laczko, IOM global migration data analysis centre manager, said actual numbers are likely higher.

“Invisible shipwrecks, where there are no survivors, are believed to be frequent occurrences on this route but are nearly impossible to verify”, he said.

August was the worst month in terms of documented fatalities – with 379 lives lost – accounting for almost half the deaths recorded this year, according to IOM.

The figures show a twofold increase compared to recorded deaths for the same period last year,  when  320 people died on the western Africa-Atlantic route.

In  2020, 850 migrant deaths were recorded on this route – the highest documented number of lives lost in a single year since 2014, when IOM first began collecting data.

Even when boats are reported in distress, it is difficult to determine the number of lives lost IOM said.

In the first eight months of this year,  9 386 people arrived in the Canary Islands by sea, a 140% increase over the same period in 2020 (3 933).

Survivor testimonies indicate these journeys are becoming riskier.

One of seven survivors from a vessel carrying 54 passengers that drifted for two weeks – before capsizing close to the Mauritanian coast in mid-August – told IOM after three days at sea, their engine was lost and they ran out of food and water.

“People were starting to die”, the survivor said, describing bodies “thrown into the sea” to lighten the load in a desperate attempt to prevent more deaths.

“There were people who looked like they had gone mad, they bit each other, they shouted and threw themselves into the sea”, she added.

Reports of remains washing ashore along the Atlantic coast or being caught in the trawl nets are further indications of “invisible shipwrecks.”

“The lack of concerted effort to recover migrant remains on this and all routes means hundreds of families are left bereaved,” Laczko said.  In the first six months of 2021, the Spanish civil society organization Caminando Fronteras, estimated 36 boats heading to the Canary Islands disappeared without a trace.

Conflict and poverty – exacerbated by measures to counter COVID-19, coupled with limited regular migration channels – continue to compel people to undertake perilous sea journeys.

“Ending this senseless loss of life on maritime migration routes to Europe requires a comprehensive response, enhanced State-led search and rescue capacities and pathways for safe, orderly and regular migration,” according to the IOM official.