Spain Races to Rescue Migrants After Boat Was Reported Missing

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Spain was racing on Monday to rescue 200 people aboard a boat in the Atlantic after an aid group reported that a vessel, carrying migrants from Senegal and bound for the Canary Islands, had not been heard from in nearly two weeks.

The authorities spotted the boat 71 miles south of the island of Gran Canaria, said a spokeswoman for Spain’s Maritime Rescue agency, adding that the agency suspected it was the boat reported by the aid group, Caminando Fronteras.

The group said it had reported the vessel, which had left the coastal village of Kafountine, Senegal, in late June, to search-and-rescue authorities on July 1. Several minors and at least four women were among its passengers, the aid group said.

The aid group said it also reported that two other boats that had not been heard from: one with 65 people aboard and the other with at least 50 people. Those boats left the city of M’Bour, near Senegal’s capital, on June 23, the aid group said. As of Monday afternoon, there was no search operation for the other two vessels, according to the spokeswoman for Maritime Rescue.

The Canary Islands are a Spanish archipelago about 1,000 miles away from Senegal. That distance would take several days to sail, said Helena Maleno Garzón, founder of Caminando Fronteras, and families of those aboard, not receiving any news since their relatives left, had reached out to the group for help. “They are very shaken,” she said.

Little more was known about the boats, but Ms. Maleno Garzón said that they were wooden fishing vessels that were not set up for long-haul journeys, and may not have had access to navigation services. Some of the passengers had not told their families they were leaving, she said, including a father who discovered that three of his sons had boarded the boat.

Many migrants have died in recent years trying to cross the Atlantic and the Mediterranean in attempts to get to Europe. In one of the worst such maritime tragedies, last month a boat that set sail from Libya capsized, killing hundreds of people off the coast of Greece. Among the victims were women and children trapped below deck.

Critics have accused the Greek authorities of not acting quickly enough to rescue the ailing boat, and human rights groups have called on the European Union to do more to stop the deaths.

European authorities have blamed the problem on people smugglers, and European governments are still struggling with how to handle migrants. Differences over migration policies have divded governments around the continent, and led the Dutch government to collapse on Friday.

Illegal immigration to Europe from Senegal has been a recurring issue as young people, facing widespread unemployment under successive governments, have tried to migrate to find work. Packed wooden fishing boats, known as pirogues, leave Senegalese coastal towns every week with dozens of young men hoping to reach the Canary Islands and later continental Spain — a phenomenon known in Wolof, Senegal’s main language, as “Barca wall Barsax,” or “Barcelona or die trying.”

Movement along the Atlantic route surged after 2019 and during the Covid pandemic, according to a report from the International Organization for Migration, a U.N. agency, but the travel declined last year as Morocco intensified border patrol efforts at sea. Last year, more than 15,600 people migrated to the Canary Islands after crossing by boat from West Africa. Many of those aboard were migrants from Morocco, Mali and Senegal, the report said.

As of mid June, 10,348 migrants had already arrived in Spain by sea this year, according to a report by Spain’s Interior Ministry.

Last year, 45 shipwrecks were recorded and 543 migrants died or disappeared, the United Nations said, noting that the figure was likely underreported because some shipwrecks were not found.

Elian Peltier contributed reporting from Dakar, Senegal and Rachel Chaundler reported from Zaragoza, Spain.

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