Migrants In Crisis: Death And Disappearance In The Journey To Spain

In an attempt to reach Spain, twelve migrants died every day in 2021. This number marks double that of 2020, estimating 4,000 refugees were killed enroute – 205 of whom were children.

The NGO “Caminando Fronteras,” or “Walking Borders,” responds to calls from migrants, communicates with their relatives and sends alerts to coastguards and maritime rescue services. The annual report estimated that 4,016 people died or vanished along the route in the previous year. This means meaning that for every six people who successfully migrate to The Canary Islands, someone dies or disappears. 

“It’s horrible,” said Helena Maleno, the founder of Walking Borders. “These are the worst figures… since we began keeping count in 2007.” Given that there is no single organization that manages the search for the missing, the ability to estimate is greatly compromised. The United Nations International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported that only 955 people died or went missing while attempting to reach the Canary Islands within the past year. Spain does not record the number of people who reach its shores, nor the number of boats that disappear without a trace. 

“4,404 is the minimum number,” Maleno said, adding that “there could be more victims that we aren’t aware of.” According to figures from the Association for Human Rights of Andalusia, 10,236 people died trying to reach Spain between 1997 and 2021. The International Organization for Migration was described in 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, and at least 41 lives were lost at the land border between Turkey and Greece. The increase in fatalities can be partially attributed to migrants’ fear of vessels and the use of weakly constructed boats on such routes, with the currents of the Atlantic Ocean being especially fierce.

“The waves were taller than the dinghy,” one survivor told Walking Borders. “The waves washed people away, sweeping them off the boat.” Recently, rescuers found a man from Mali force-feeding 2 young boys for 19 days, after most of the other 59 passengers had died due to starvation. “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,” the passenger said. “He looked dead.”

According to The Guardian, people who attempted to reach Spain in 2020 came from 21 countries, from the Ivory Coast to Sri Lanka. 9,000 undocumented migrants successfully reached Spain, drawing a similar comparison to that of 2020. Most migrants attempt the journey in an effort to flee from armed conflict, evade the consequences of climate change or find opportunities to provide themselves and their children a better life.

Reports from both The International Organization for Migration and Walking Borders found a correlation between rising fatality rates and Europe’s efforts to reduce migration in the Mediterranean. For example, in 2015, there was a sudden influx of Syrians into Turkey, Greece, Germany and Sweden. The response boiled down to the catchphrase “wir shaffen das”, meaning “We will manage it.” This management eventually resulted in police in North Macedonia firing teargas at migrants, building fences or closing off routes entirely. Therefore, the majority of the humanitarian responsibilities fell on volunteers, who provided them with basic necessities and temporary living accommodations. This lack of perspective is exacerbated in other countries’ policies, like Trump’s advocacy to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, and ongoing inhumane treatment of children in ICE custody.

“The back-ups at CBP (Customs and Border Protection) in 2019 should have been preventable,” said Mark Greenberg, a former Acting Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services. “The surge didn’t happen overnight… there were clear warning signs about the need to take action earlier to prevent it.”

The Migration Data Portal predicts that the number of international migrants will remain for years to come, peaking between 2040-45. Today, many nations turn a blind eye to migrants’ desperation, forming a never-ending list of people who disappear or die and can hardly be accounted for in the process. Their suffering should serve as a reminder to political leaders and citizens alike that we must not isolate the vulnerable in seeing them as lesser; rather, we must see ourselves as indebted for naturally having more. 

In 2015, the former Swedish prime minister provided an empathetic perception of what migrants experience. “True vulnerability is to put your family on a boat which you don’t know if it’s going to make it across the sea…[It] is to flee even if you don’t know where you’re going, if you will get there, if you will even survive,” he said.

Reconstructing our perception of migrants will create motivation to develop effective interventions, such as the improvement of agricultural systems, avoidance of human conflict, and provision of responses to famine and nuclear disaster. This will hopefully aid in the transformation of migration as forced to voluntary. 

On Monday, Walking Borders called on the Spanish government to address the rise in deaths, as it has been over thirty years since the first known death of a Spain-bound refugee. “In those 34 years, the idea that people can die by crossing a border” is “accepted as normal,” said Maleno. “It’s not normal.”