At least four people were found dead on a migrant boat off the Canary Island of El Hierro on Sunday, the Spanish Red Cross said.
The vessel was spotted by a fishing boat around 193km (120 miles) to the south of El Hierro, one of the smallest of the Canary Islands, according to local media.
A rescue operation was under way on Sunday afternoon, with three helicopters deployed to airlift the injured to safety.
The Red Cross said that of the 23 people on board the boat, 16 were in a “serious condition” and three in a better state had been airlifted to Tenerife. The four dead people would be taken to El Hierro.
The number of undocumented migrants and refugees arriving in Spain’s Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean was more than eight times higher last year than in 2019, with the effect of COVID-19 on tourism and other industries in north and sub-Saharan Africa pushing many more to embark on the dangerous journey.
In 2020, 23,000 people arrived by boat to the archipelago while some 850 people died or went missing along the way, according to the United Nation’s migration agency’s Missing Migrants Project.
Between January 1 and March 31 this year 3,400 people arrived in the Canaries, compared with less than half that number over the same period in 2019.
Hundreds died or went missing last year after attempting the crossing to the islands, often in rickety, overcrowded boats with unreliable engines, the UN refugee agency UNHCR has said.
Since 2014, more than 20,000 migrants and refugees have died at sea while trying to reach Europe from Africa. More than 17,000 of those have been in the central Mediterranean which is described by the UN as the most dangerous migration route in the world.