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More African migrants eye Canary Islands

Martina Schwikowski
March 11, 2022

Thousands of migrants from West Africa are taking the risky journey to Europe via the Spanish Canary Islands. As a result, aid organizations have said that 2021 saw more fatalities in the Atlantic than ever before.

African migrants crowded in a small boat
The number of migrants trying to reach the Canary Islands has increased dramaticallyImage: Mission Lifeline/dpa/picture alliance

Madala Tounkara, of Mali, was still a minor when he boarded a small wooden fishing boat seven years ago and set off on a perilous sea voyage from the coast of Mauritania in West Africa.

Like many African migrants, his longed-for destination was the Canary Islands — a Spanish archipelago off Africa's northwest coast.

To reach Gran Canaria, the boat carrying Tounkara had to contend with the raging waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

"The last day was the worst. I didn't have any strength left to hold on," the young Malian told DW. "I was very scared the whole time. But then, when you're suddenly in such an extreme situation, the fear fades."

Tounkara survived the journey. He now earns money from boxing and working in restaurant kitchens in Las Palmas, the capital of Gran Canaria, one of the eight islands that make up the archipelago.

Three-way route to Europe

While some migrants travel the western Mediterranean route via Niger, Mali and Algeria to Morocco and across the Mediterranean to Spain, others take the central Mediterranean route, which starts in Libya and leads to Malta or Italian islands like Lampedusa or Sicily.

But the West African Atlantic route to the Canary Islands, the one undertaken by Tounkara, is growing in popularity with migrants.

A map showing three separate routes to Europe taken by African migrants

And as the numbers of migrants making the challenging crossing rises, so, too, do the numbers who lose their lives trying. The Spanish aid organization Caminando Fronteras recorded 4,000 deaths of people trying to reach the Canary Islands by boat in 2021. 

Hundreds lost in the Atlantic

However, the number of victims documented by Caminando Fronteras is about three and a half times higher than that of the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

The latter speaks of 1,109 migrants who died on that route in 2021. One reason for this discrepancy is that Caminando Fronteras, which is well-networked in northwest Africa, has direct contact with the survivors of boats that have sunk and with migrants' families in Africa. Data is cross-checked with information from migrant communities and social agencies.

Regardless, the IOM agrees that migration along the West African Atlantic route is increasing.

"In recent years, more people have died or disappeared on this passage. In 2021, at least 73 boat accidents were recorded on this route, killing 1,109 migrants," Alpha Seydi Ba, spokesperson of the IOM office in Dakar, told DW.

He said that more than three-quarters of these documented deaths were people missing and declared dead.

A number of migrants walk in line as Spanish officials look on
These migrants from Morocco were lucky to have made it to Gran CanariaImage: Javier Bauluz/AP Photo/picture alliance

Sea-bound migrants 'know the risk'

Madala Tounkara, the young Malian in Las Palmas, believes that even more people have lost their lives during the crossing.

"Nobody knows how many are dead or floating around at sea. Often the boats simply run out of food or water, or gasoline. That's how most people die," Tounkara said. "They know the risk."

Yet the dangers don't deter the migrants.

According to Spain's interior ministry, more than 22,300 people landed irregularly in the Canary Islands in 2021.

"This is a slight decrease compared to 2020, but still a dramatic increase compared to previous years," said IOM's Seydi Ba, adding that between 2010 and 2019, these numbers were in the hundreds and "not tens of thousands."

He said that for most migrants, staying at home means resigning oneself to an uncertain life.

People also face social pressure to leave their families and strike out on their own, as children in Europe could offer their parents better living standards back home via remittances.

"So staying is shameful, not only for them but also for their parents, who often support or finance these trips," Seydi Ba said.

A list indicating reasons African might migrate to Europe

Migration 'a fundamental right'

According to the IOM, 25.4 million Africans migrated to another country in search of a better future in 2020, the most-recent year with plentiful data available.

Interestingly, 80% of African migrants sought greener pastures within the continent, with Ivory Coast and South Africa as preferred destinations, according to the IOM.

African migration to Western countries accounts for less than 15% of the continent's migration. Of that, nearly 85% is legal.

The IOM said it's not against migration. "It is a fundamental right and beneficial not only for migrants but also for host communities," stressed Seydi Ba. "However, to harness the potential of migration for sustainable economic growth, it should be safe, orderly and regular."

Wooden boats by the shore
Thousands of Africans risk their lives in tiny boats like these to reach European shoresImage: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Supporting those left behind

In Madala Tounkara's native Mali, relatives follow his every move on the Spanish archipelago.

Half of Malians live in poverty, which has been exacerbated in recent years by the COVID-19 pandemic and political crises.

The school fees and food of the children in his extended family all come from the money Tounkara earns. Tama Koita, Tounkara's uncle, told DW that the family depends on Tounkara for survival.

"He set out to free us from suffering. We know he works very hard to do that and doesn't have it easy where he is," Koita said.

Koita's house is close to one of Bamako's bus stations. Young Malians like Tounkara leave from there every day to seek their fortunes in Europe.

Some even know Tounkara from earlier, when he lived in the neighborhood.

"Madala is one of us," one young man told DW. "We follow everything he does. One day we would like to be like him."

But Madala Tounkara isn't sure whether he wants to encourage others in his hometown to make the perilous journey. He knows that some of them might not survive it.

Returnee migrants in Gambia

Jan-Philipp Scholz in Spain and Ismail Dicko in Mali contributed to this article, which was originally written in German.