An estimated 12 people a day died or disappeared while trying to reach Spain in 2021, more than double the total for the previous year.
The 4,404 refugees who perished included 205 children, according to Caminando Fronteras (Walking Borders). In a report published on Monday, the NGO noted that the number of deaths was more than twice the 2,170 deaths and disappearances recorded in 2020.
“It’s horrible,” said Helena Maleno, who leads Caminando Fronteras. “These are the worst figures we’ve seen since we began keeping count in 2007.”
The report drew a direct link between the steep rise in the number of deaths and European efforts to curb migration in the Mediterranean. As a result, refugees have turned increasingly to the treacherous Canary Islands route – one of the most dangerous crossings into Europe – setting off in unstable vessels that are often unfit to face the fierce currents of the Atlantic.
Up until 28 December last year, 22,200 migrants landed on the shores of the Canary Islands, according to the Spanish government. Caminando Fronteras estimated that 4,016 people died or vanished along the route, suggesting that for approximately every six people who make it to the Spanish archipelago, one person dies or disappears.
The figures compiled by Caminando Fronteras are drawn from the work it does in fielding distress calls from migrants or their families and alerting coastguards and maritime rescue services. The NGO also logs missing vessels and works with relatives to identify the missing and the dead.
“The 4,404 is the minimum number,” said Maleno. “The truth is that there could be more victims that we aren’t aware of.” Boats en route to Spain often vanish without a trace, in part explaining why the bodies of 95% of those who died or disappear are never recovered.
People who were lost attempting to reach Spain came from 21 countries, from the Ivory Coast to Sri Lanka, many fleeing armed conflict or the consequences of climate change.
Those who do make it to Spain, particularly via the Canary Islands route, are often haunted by the journey. “The waves were taller than the dinghy,” one survivor told Caminando Fronteras after a voyage in which 15 of the 58 people onboard were lost. “The waves washed people away, sweeping them off the boat,” they said.
Another man from Mali described spending days lost at sea as food and water supplies dwindled and nearly all of the 59 people onboard succumbed to starvation.
After 19 days adrift, rescuers found him and two others barely alive. He had spent much of the trip force-feeding a young boy who also managed to survive. “I would open his mouth to feed him a scrap of biscuit with the bit of water that was left and tell him to swallow,” he said. “He looked dead.”
On Monday, Caminando Fronteras called on the Spanish government to take urgent steps to address the rise in deaths, noting that more than three decades had passed since a body turned up on the shores of Andalusia, in what is believed to be the first known death of a Spain-bound refugee.
“In those 34 years, the idea that people can die by crossing a border has become something that people have accepted as normal,” said Maleno. “It’s not normal.”
The International Organization for Migration has described 2021 as the deadliest for migration routes to and within Europe since 2018. At least 1,315 people have died on the central Mediterranean crossing, while at least 41 lives were lost at the land border between Turkey and Greece.
In November, 27 refugees, including a pregnant woman and three children, drowned in the Channel while trying to cross from France to the UK.