At least 55 migrants died off north African coast this week, says UN

The grim reality of the migration crisis unfolding off the coasts of north Africa has been underlined by two separate tragedies this week in which at least 55 people died.

45 people – including five children – perished when the engine on their boat exploded off Libya, in the country’s deadliest shipwreck this year, the UN said late on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Spanish authorities confirmed that the bodies of ten migrants had been found in a semi-submerged boat near the Canary Islands, in the latest disaster to strike on a separate migration route to Europe.

The UN agencies for refugees and migration said that 37 people were rescued by fishermen after Monday’s shipwreck near the Libyan coastal town of Zwara.

The survivors – mostly from Senegal, Mali, Chad and Ghana – were returned to land, only to be detained by local authorities.

The disaster brings the official death toll on that route to 302 this year, the UN agencies said, although they added that the true figure is likely to be much higher.

War-ravaged Libya is a major route for migrants seeking to reach Europe and the country now hosts an estimated 654,000 of them, often living in cramped conditions with little access to health care.

But in recent months, hundreds of migrants have been stopped at sea and their vessels sent back to Libya despite the risk of violence there.

“There is an urgent need to strengthen the current search and rescue capacity to respond to distress calls,” the UN agencies said, adding that “there remains a continued absence of any dedicated, EU-led search and rescue programme”.

The UN agencies warned that Libya is not a safe alternative: migrants and refugees in the country are “at risk of the ongoing conflict, severe human rights violations, and arbitrary detention post-disembarkation”.

Amid continuing violence in Libya, many migrants have sought new routes to European territory, with increasing numbers attempting the perilous crossing from north-west Africa to Spain’s Canary Islands.

Late on Wednesday, the Spanish maritime rescue service confirmed that a half-sunken boat with ten bodies onboard had been found some 85 miles south of the island of Gran Canaria.

The discovery was made as rescuers searched the area for a missing boat that had left Mauritania with about 40 people on board days earlier.

Rippling with strong currents and limited in coastguard resources, the hazardous ocean route has claimed at least 357 lives in the past year, according to the UN migration agency – roughly translating into one death for every 20 migrants who arrive onshore.

“We are sure that the data underestimates the actual number of deaths and disappearances,” Marta Sánchez Dionis of the agency recently told the Efe news agency, pointing to the difficulties of documenting a population that is in transit.

Despite these risks, the number of migrants attempting the journey has grown in recent years as authorities crack down on the routes that span the Mediterranean. So far this year, the number of migrants on the Atlantic route has grown fivefold, with more than 3,500 migrants arriving in the Canary Islands, according to the country’s interior ministry.

The surge in numbers has drawn comparisons with 2006, when tens of thousands of migrants made their way to the Canary Islands from Africa. The route proved just as deadly then, with hundreds believed to have lost their lives as they sought to reach European soil.

One key difference this time, however, has been the number of children and newborns risking the route, said José Antonio Rodríguez Verona of the Red Cross. “Already this year we’ve assisted three women who gave birth while on the boat.”