After many days without hearing from his wife and 6-year-old daughter, who were shipped to the Canary Islands, Hamido, an Ivorian living in France, traveled to the Spanish archipelago where he learned that his wife had died and the little girl was traumatized.
It is a recurring nightmare experienced by people seeking information about their relatives, undocumented migrants, who disappear trying to reach the Atlantic archipelago in precarious and overloaded boats, challenging a dangerous sea route.
This year, the number of deaths and missing persons on the Atlantic route has risen to 937, when in 2019 it stood at 202, according to data from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), for whom 2021 “has been the deadliest year in the migration route to Spain “since 1997.
The tragedies have increased in parallel with the number of migrant arrivals to the Canary Islands from Africa, sometimes traveling up to 1,500 kilometers, due to the greater control imposed on the Mediterranean route. This year, 19,865 people have reached the archipelago.
Caminando Fronteras, a Spanish NGO that collects information on the boats that leave for the Canary Islands, raises the number of deaths and disappearances to 2,087 in the first half of this year alone, a figure that almost equals 2,170 in all of 2020.
Hamido “got in touch with us, he was very desperate because no one gave him information,” recalls Helena Maleno, from Caminando Fronteras, who helps people who are looking for relatives who left in boats.
“It is being a horrible year (…) Migrants know that going out to sea means that (…) you can die,” says Maleno, noting that the odds are “50-50, live or die.”
– “Cemetery of pateras” –
For many, the boats that were supposed to take them to Europe become coffins.
A young man who says his name is Mamadou, says that when he left Mauritania in August 2020, at the age of 17, there were 58 migrants and on the third day of the journey, without water and without food, his fellow travelers began to die. Only 11 survived.
“There are many people who die in the sea. They do not arrive,” he says. Still with the vivid memory of the two weeks he spent at sea, this lanky young man walks through the port of Arinaga, in Gran Canaria, where there is a “pateras cemetery”, a large number of abandoned colored boats.
A family knows “that their son has gone to Spain”, but this “does not call him”, he points out.
“These people should not die,” Teodoro Bondyale, secretary of the Federation of African Associations in the Canary Islands (FAAC), tells AFP, standing next to the place where a baby was buried in April in the cemetery of Las Palmas, capital of Gran Canaria.
At least 83 children have died this year on the Atlantic route, according to the IOM.
“If migrations could be normal with a visa, with a passport, people could travel,” estimates the secretary of the FAAC, which organized the Muslim burial of the baby.
But “we condemn them to travel through dangerous migratory routes, trafficked by unscrupulous people,” he laments.
– More boats, more deaths –
The situation “is getting worse (…) the deaths this year have increased much more than last year,” says immigration lawyer Daniel Arencibia, who calls for the creation of a centralized office to search for migrants.
“The main problem is political, because [existe] a body that is really in charge of managing all these searches, but it is the relatives themselves “and the people who collaborate with them who should be in charge, he adds.
The Catholic priest José Antonio Benítez is one of those offering help.
“My role is to make it easier for families so that people can have the truest knowledge of where they can be found” their loved one, she explains.
In a recent case, several Moroccan families arrived in Gran Canaria after 10 people died in a boat.
They spent “days touring hospitals” without receiving answers, says Benítez, for whom bureaucracy and strict data protection often cause more suffering.
In the end, they found his relatives in the morgue.
Since mid-June, Caminando Fronteras has been helping 570 families track down missing persons.
The same has been done by the Red Cross, which has received 359 search requests.
The Red Cross is advancing a pilot program that seeks, through multiple sources, to collect information in a collaborative platform that can offer more reliable information about the people who were in a boat and their fate.
When there are no bodies, “you have to find other ways to achieve your goal,” says José Pablo Baraybar, a forensic anthropologist who works with the Red Cross on the pilot program.
The idea is “to provide accredited answers, even if they are partial (…) Families have the right to know and we have the obligation to honor that right in the way that we can,” he concludes.
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