2017: More flimsy boats, more rescues, more deaths

Mon, 18/12/2017 - 07:58


Migration. The number of people getting to Spain by irregular means has doubled in 2017. The death toll for the route has risen by 61%.

International Migrants Day is on 18 December and marks the adoption of the international convention on the protection of the rights of migrant workers and members of their families by the UN General Assembly. On the ‘Barcelona, Refuge City’ website we’re marking the occasion with an overview of migration flow via the so-called ‘Western Mediterranean route’, used by thousands of people in clandestine crossings to reach southern Europe, across the stretch which separates Spain and North Africa. Over 25,000 people managed to reach the Spanish state this year, nearly twice as many as last year. A total of 206 died trying, most of them drowning in the Mediterranean.

More and more migrants and refugees are trying to reach Spain by irregular means. The trickle of flimsy boats has once again become a constant stream. In the 339 days from 1 January to 6 December, 25,450 people arrived in Spain, according to data from the International Organization for Migration (IOM). More than three out of four did so by crossing the sea.

The lack of safe and legal routes to reach Spain means that an average of 59 people a day put themselves in the hands of organised human trafficking rings and take to flimsy craft such as rowing boats, dinghies and even kayaks and jet skis in their quest to cross the Mediterranean. The number who do so has risen sharply, a total of 19.977 people this year, compared to the 8,162 in 2016. Arrivals by land, via Ceuta and Melilla, have also risen slightly, from 5,084 people in 2016 to 5,473 people in the year up to 6 December this year.

While migrants and refugees reaching Spain only account for 14.5% of all those arriving in Europe this year from Africa, Asia and the Middle East, 176,452 people in all, the number has risen so sharply in recent months that the IOM has warned that an emergency situation may ensue if the same rhythm continues.

“Spain is experiencing a similar situation to Greece at the start of 2015, or even Italy before that”, warned the IOM spokesman Joel Millman in mid-August. Since then, the trend has continued and between 2,000 and 2,500 people have arrived each month, peaking in November with over 5,500 people.


Arrivals in Spain 2016-2017

The rise is confirmed by data from the Red Cross, who have attended to twice as many people this year as last year, and the Spanish maritime rescue service, involved in nine out of ten rescues. From January to October this year, this public entity which is the responsibility of the Ministry of Public Works and Transport rescued 824 vessels carrying a total of 13,554 migrants. That’s more than the whole year in 2008, a bad year, when 12,690 people were rescued.

If the flow was regular, that would mean nearly 3 boats and 44 people a day.

Maritime Rescue offers information on rescue operations via its Twitter account. Every few days there is a rescue, sometimes on consecutive days. A few examples: on 14 December the service reported 113 rescued and one dead from three boats at sea near Alborán; on 10 December it reported the rescue of 43 people and 22 people from two boats respectively in the Strait of Gibraltar, along with 25 others saved by a Guardia Civil patrol boat; on 7 December a further 55 people had been saved on a boar near Fuengirola.

The entity often gets help from the Caminando Fronteras, an NGO which raises the alarm whenever a flimsy vessel with migrants on board gets into trouble when crossing the strait. This task, which is estimated to have saved hundreds of lives, has earned the human rights activist and migration expert Helena Maleno an accusation of human trafficking by a Moroccan court for her role with the NGO.

Since the start of the year

The growing trend first became apparent in January, when the 1,048 ‘illegal crossings’ of the border between Morocco and Spain recorded by Frontex in the first quarter of 2016 practically quadrupled to 4,096 for the same period this year. Most people who managed to reach Spain came from Guinea, Ivory Coast, Gambia, Syria and Cameroon, according to the European border police.

The rise in the number of people reaching Spain coincides with a drop in the migration flow between Libya and Italy, the longest and most dangerous of all Mediterranean sea crossings, accounting for around 70% of people reaching Europe by sea.

Between January and October this year, arrivals in Italy dropped by around 30% compared to the same period last year according to the IOM, while Spain saw a rise of around 120%. The IOM estimates that 111,393 people managed to reach Italian soil, compared to 160,000 the previous year.

The IOM points out that many migrants originating from countries in Western Africa now choose to try their luck between Morocco and Spain, a route which is considered a safer option for getting to Europe under the radar.

The distance is shorter, but it’s not safe either. In July it was the scene for one of this year’s worst tragedies in the Mediterranean, when 49 people from sub-Saharan Africa disappeared when trying to reach the Spanish coast. The rubber dinghy they were travelling in deflated to the west of the Isle of Alborán, half way between the Moroccan and Spanish coasts, and just two people survived.

The drop in the number of people arriving in Italy is also the result of EU cooperation measures with Libya to halt the migration flow through the central Mediterranean. Denounced by human rights organisations as they believe people are getting trapped in Libya as a result and exposed to abuse and detention, the measures include training and funding for Libyan coastguard services.

The drop in people setting off from Libya has had another effect in that the number of people reaching Italy by irregular means from countries such as Tunisia, Algeria and Turkey has risen.

Swallowed by the sea

Despite the overall drop in migrants crossing the sea clandestinely this year, the Mediterranean continues to be the deadliest frontier on the planet. The IOM keeps figures for those who perish or disappear while trying, most of them drowning at sea. Each death the organisation hears about is documented and marked on a geolocation map. Nobody knows who they were, but we do know how, where and when they died.

The number of deaths in the Mediterranean as a whole has dropped this year compared to 2016. Since the start of the year, 3,091 people have lost their lives, compared to 4,962 last year. Overall, the percentage of deaths compared to the number of arrivals is higher this year: two people died for every hundred who managed to reach Europe.

The Central Mediterranean route, towards Italy, continues to be the most dangerous and deadly. This year is the first time it has been followed by the Western Mediterranean route, towards Spain. The route from North Africa to the Spanish state is the one route of the three which has seen an increase in the number of deaths: from 102 in 2015, to 128 in 2016 and 206 people this year.

Photos from @salvamentogob


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