The Spanish coastguard says it has rescued 86 people from a boat off the Canary Islands that had been spotted earlier in the day by a rescue plane.
A plane and ship were dispatched to initially search for a fishing vessel from Senegal that had about 200 people on board and had been missing for nearly two weeks.
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The rescue service initially thought the boat spotted on Monday by the reconnaissance plane 114km (71 miles) to the south of the island of Gran Canaria could have been the missing vessel.
But its spokesperson said the rescue service found 86 people on board and only a further investigation would show where it had sailed from. The boat was being towed to Gran Canaria.
The rescue service said it could not confirm that the rescued boat was one of the three reported missing. It also said it had alerted boats sailing in Atlantic waters between the Canary Islands and West Africa to be on the lookout for other migrant boats still missing.
The refugee aid group Walking Borders said on Sunday that the fishing vessel and another two boats – one carrying about 65 people and the other with 50 to 60 on board – had been missing for about two weeks after they left Senegal to try to reach Spain.
Helena Maleno of Walking Borders said on Monday that the families of the at least 300 refugees on board the three boats had not received any new information about their whereabouts.
The condition of those on board was unknown.
Maleno’s organisation had contacted authorities in Senegal, Mauritania, Morocco and Spain, urging them to search for the missing boats.
“There need to be more resources devoted to the search,” she said.
All three boats left in late June from the village of Kafountine in Senegal’s region of Cassamance, home to a decades-long uprising. It is located about 1,700km (1,050 miles) from Spain’s Canary Islands. Weather conditions in the Atlantic were bad for such a voyage, Maleno said.
The Atlantic migration route, typically used by refugees from sub-Saharan Africa, is one of the deadliest in the world. Nearly 800 people have died or gone missing in the first half of 2023, according to Walking Borders.
At least 559 people died in 2022 in attempts to reach the Canary Islands, according to the International Organization for Migration.
In recent years, the Canary Islands have become one of the main destinations for people trying to reach Spain with a peak of more than 23,000 refugees arriving in 2020, according to Spain’s Interior Ministry. In the first six months of this year, more than 7,000 refugees reached the Canaries.
One of the deadliest mass drownings of Europe-bound refugees happened last month on the Mediterranean Sea. More than 500 people are presumed dead off the coast of Greece. Criticism has mounted over the European Union’s years-long failure to prevent such tragedies.
Boats heading for the Canary Islands mainly travel from Morocco, Western Sahara and Mauritania with fewer coming from Senegal, the Spanish aid group said. However, at least 19 boats from Senegal have arrived in the Canary Islands since June, the group said.
Factors such as ailing economies, a lack of jobs, political unrest and the impact of climate change push people to risk their lives on overcrowded boats to reach the Canaries. Last month in Senegal, at least 23 people were killed during weeks of protests between opposition supporters and police.
Data from the EU border agency, Frontex, shows 1,135 refugees originating from Senegal had arrived in the Canaries so far this year.