At least 140 migrants trying to reach Europe drowned off the coast of Senegal when their boat caught fire and capsized, a U.N. agency said on Thursday. It marked the deadliest shipwreck recorded in 2020, and happened along a route where at least 414 people have now died this year, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said in a news release.
The vessel bound for the Canary Islands reportedly ran into trouble a few hours after leaving the coastal town of Mbour, the IOM said. The boat caught fire and capsized near Saint-Louis, on Senegal's northwest coast.
The IOM, citing local media sources, said the Senegalese and Spanish navies as well as fishermen who were nearby were able to rescue 59 people and recover the bodies of 20 others. The remaining passengers were lost and presumed dead.
Reuters reports video broadcast on local media showed a thick column of dark smoke in the open ocean, as people swam frantically towards fishermen on a boat.
The Canary Islands has seen a dramatic increase in migrant arrivals in recent weeks. In September, 14 boats carrying 663 migrants left Senegal for the Spanish islands — and 26% of those "experienced an incident or shipwreck," the IOM said.
According to the Spanish government, about 11,000 migrant arrivals have been recorded in the Canary Islands this year, more than four times the number of arrivals during the same period last year.
Reuters reports the surge has come as authorities implemented tougher controls on other routes through Libya or Algeria, and across the Mediterranean Sea. Now African migrants seeking to escape war or poverty are taking a much longer, more treacherous route to the Spanish islands, often in overcrowded and unreliable boats.
"We call for unity between governments, partners and the international community to dismantle trafficking and smuggling networks that take advantage of desperate youth," said Bakary Doumbia, IOM Senegal Chief of Mission. "It is also important that we advocate for enhanced legal channels to undermine the traffickers' business model and prevent loss of life."