Between 13-23 November, at least 29 people died on the Canary route. Spanish prosecutors have sentenced a man to 32 years imprisonment for driving a boat on which 16 lives were lost in October 2020. Moroccan forces continue to intercept people attempting to leave for Europe. A group of Palestinians who disembarked a flight during a layover are claiming asylum in Spain.

Many recent rescues of small boats off Spain’s Canary archipelago have been tainted by tragedy. On 24 November, the bodies of 14 people were found onboard a boat lost for 20 days at sea. The 20 survivors were located more than 500km from the Canary Islands. They were transferred ashore, to Western Sahara, where they were handed over to Moroccan gendarmes. On 21 November, a man’s body – found in an advanced stage of decomposition on a drifting boat – marked the 15th victim in 8 days. At least 303 survivors were rescued the next day in eight rescue operations. Over the weekend, another 286 were rescued from 6 vessels. A boat that was adrift for more than a week with 62 people onboard was rescued on 13 November, but not before nine lives were lost. The tragedies have coincided with a busy time on the Atlantic Route, with 400 people disembarking after rescues on the 22-23 November and a further 374 disembarked over the following 24 hours. Some 16,827 people arrived in the Canaries between January and October, according to Spain’s interior ministry.

A tragedy at sea in October 2020 has been the subject of a recent court case in Spain. The case involve a boat carrying 26 people on which 16 perished as it drifted for two weeks in waters south of Gran Canaria. The Moroccan citizen who owned and piloted the boat was sentenced to 32 years in prison. The charges included 16 reckless homicides and “abetting irregular immigration”. While, details of this case have not been revealed the general prosecutions for human smuggling have been in the spotlight across the EU. Critics argue they have become a tool to penal those forced to make dangerous journeys in order to seek asylum. In July 2018, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for the adoption of guidelines to prevent the criminalisation of humanitarian assistance whilst implementing EU anti-smuggling rules. Few states in the bloc explicitly exempt humanitarians from prosecution under national anti-smuggling laws.

Moroccan forces have been active in rescuing and intercepting people taking to the sea. 331 people were picked up on 12-14 November, and another 140 African and Asian people onboard makeshift boats were intercepted at sea on 22 November. While according to the Moroccan state broadcaster these people were in distress, commentators have in the past alleged Moroccan complicity in preventing asylum seekers from arriving in Spain. The news agency stated that the people were handed over the police for “the usual administrative procedures”.  Spain has also sought cooperation with Mauritania, Senegal and Mali to detect and intercept boats.

Spanish authorities say 39 Palestinian refugees have sought asylum at Barcelona airport. The people, who landed on a stopover on a flight to Cairo, refused to board their outbound flight and instead demanded to apply for asylum on Spanish soil. After staying in police facilities in the airport for five days, 29 of the people were permitted to enter Spain. The Spanish representative for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said the people were carrying refugee documents issued by the UN Agency for Palestine Refugees, UNRWA. Some had previously sought asylum in Egypt and Ethiopia.

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Photo: (CC) Gary Leavens, September 2013

This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.