Boats leave the Sahara sands to take migrants to Spain

Boats leave the Sahara sands to take migrants to Spain


20 January 2021 GMT

DAKHLA, Western Sahara (AP) – Under a star-studded sky in the Sahara, smugglers and elephants locate a boat buried in the sand, designed to carry migrants from the North African coast to the Canary Islands of Spain. The ship was.

With experienced skills, the men hoisted the blue-bottomed wooden boat on top of a four-wheel drive vehicle, which would take it from this inland hideaway to the western Sahara coast. From there, the boat is to carry 20 to 30 migrants to the Atlantic Ocean and the EU’s border agency calls it “the most dangerous migrant route in the world”.

The boat’s handover is an important but small piece of the migrant smuggling chain in the disputed Western Sahara – as a trade that flourished last year, the Coronavirus epidemic plunged many Africans into poverty and impoverishment, along other routes, to the Canary Islands Getaway. The highest recorded rates increased eightfold.

Encouraged by aid from Spain and the European Union, Moroccan officials who control Western Sahara – where some residents have long sought independence – are rapidly breaking down and the boat transfer recently seen by the Associated Press Has failed.

But many others succeed, as smugglers dodge police helicopter searchlights in the desert and reach fishing towns around Dakhla. The peninsula city boasts a thriving fishing harbor, and an enthusiastic flock to its waters. But in recent months, its beaches 500 kilometers (300 mi) north have become a hot spot for canary smuggling networks.

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Although irregular crossings in Europe dropped overall in 2020, the Canary Islands saw significant growth, with the arrival of some 22,600 migrants, according to figures from the European Union and the Spanish government, with migrants trying to reach European shores last year. Became the main point of entry for. At least 600 people died or went missing while trying to travel.

The resurgence of the route is driven in part by COVID-19.

The epidemic has wiped out livelihoods across Morocco by cutting tourism revenues and periodically shutting down local businesses. While most arrivals in the Canaries in the past were from Sub-Saharan Africa, now about half are from Morocco. According to the International Organization for Migration, boats depart regularly from the West African shores of Guinea, Gambia and Mauritania.

A resident of Dakhla, who organized trips for migrants, said economic difficulties prompted him to work for a network of smuggling.

“We had to earn money and feed our families,” the 32-year-old told AP on condition of anonymity.

He says he makes one trip per week, while contestants send 10 boats a night. He estimates that half of the migration attempts fail, either before departure or because of problems at sea.

A recent failure was visible off the coast of the Deccala Peninsula: freshly burned remains of a migratory boat that caught fire. The fate of those people is unclear.

The IOM’s Missing Migrants project registered 601 fatalities or missing lives on the Canary route last year, including at least 109 people who had moved from Dakhla or were found near Dakhla. They are still investigating another eight missing boats with 355 people on board.

The Dakkhala resident said that migrants have to pay $ 2,000 for the trip – a large sum in Morocco, where the typical worker earns a few hundred dollars a month – but will not say how much he himself earns.

“I don’t know where they got the money, but they want to leave at any cost,” he said.

One night recently, a group of smugglers interfered and headed inland, after which a vehicle carried more than a dozen handymen. They removed the previous police outposts and then turned the highway into an endless expanse of desert. The driver had coordinated a GPS on a phone and crossed the sand with the experience of someone who seemed to have taken the route several times.

At the meeting point, the men found a white tent and a young boat-builder – and explored a large boat.

As they prepared to return, the smugglers received a message about the police “movement” and were asked to leave the boat. Within minutes, the pot under the sand was deep again – and the tent and equipment were gone.

As the men returned to the city, police stopped their car and searched for signs of smuggling – but none were found.

Carpenter said he built boats in the desert to attract attention – a common practice, although smugglers also occasionally buy boats from fishermen. Carpenter, who said he earns around 20,000 dirhams ($ 2,000) per ship, spoke on condition of anonymity because of his involvement with the smuggling network.

When these kinds of boats go to Dakhla, they find a lot of takers.

It can take four days to arrive in the Canary, and people are in terrible shape. According to migration agencies, they usually do not take food on the trip and have very little water, if any.

But preventing people from taking risks is a major challenge in the global economic crisis. As the crossing reached an all-time high last year, as the European Union’s border agency began collecting data in 2009, Spain sent top government officials in Senegal and Morocco in November on how to stop the crossing.

The European Union provides development assistance to African countries to help them manage migration and has also established a 5 billion euro (6 billion dollar) trust fund to address the problem. For their part, Moroccan police have said they stopped around 10,000 migrants from crossing Europe last year, and the government agreed to take back the Moroccans who have been deported.

But still hundreds of people try the trip. Six deaths have already been recorded in 2021 on the Canary route, a boy recently drowned.

“This is one of the deadliest routes to the European Union,” Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson told EU lawmakers on Tuesday. “And we don’t really know how many lives have been lost.”


Journalists in the Associated Press Lorne Cook in Brussels, Renata Britto in Barcelona and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.


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