Migrants dying in unprecedented numbers on Canary Islands route, NGO says

Rescuers disembark a migrant in critical condition from a Spanish coast guard vessel at the port of Arguineguin

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By Borja Suarez

ARGUINEGUIN, Spain (Reuters) -An unprecedented nearly 5,000 migrants have died at sea in the first five months of 2024 trying to reach the Spanish Canary Islands, according to a report released by migration rights group Walking Borders on Wednesday.

Between Jan. 1 and May 31, 4,808 people died on the Atlantic voyage to the Canaries after departing from Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal and Gambia, making it the deadliest route between Africa and Spain, with 95% of migrant deaths, according to the group.

Arrivals to the archipelago in that period soared five times to over 16,500 from a year ago, Interior Ministry data showed.

The Mediterranean route was the second deadliest, with 175 deaths on the crossing from Algeria to Spain's southeastern shores. Another 71 people died on the Strait of Gibraltar and Alboran Sea that separate Spain from Morocco, bringing the total of victims on routes to Spain to 5,054 - an average of 33 per day.

"We cannot normalise these figures. We must demand that the various countries put the protocols of duty of care at sea and the defence of the right to life above migration control measures," said the NGO's coordinator, Helena Maleno.

The victims came from 17 different countries, mostly from the African mainland but also the Comoros Islands in the Indian Ocean, as well as Pakistan. They included 154 women and 50 children, the report said.

The head of the Red Cross in the Canary Islands, Jose Antonio Rodriguez Verona, said the Atlantic route was the most dangerous as the ocean's rough weather conditions could easily cause the precarious vessels used by most migrants to capsize.

Migration expert and journalist Txema Santana said there were the political and economic ingredients of a "perfect storm" in West Africa that would likely see more mass arrivals to the Canaries in the upcoming summer and autumn seasons.

Last year, a record 39,910 migrants reached the Canary Islands and over 6,000 people died while attempting the perilous crossing. Rights groups expect that figure to be surpassed this year.

(Reporting by Borja Suarez; Writing by David Latona; Editing by Andrei Khalip and Ros Russell)