By Akanimo Sampson
More than 30,000 inhabitants of Nouadhibou, Mauritania’s second-largest city, with a population of 120,000 are migrants.
The city used to be a sleepy fishing port, receiving few of the small numbers of tourists this Saharan African country sees.
Recent data generated by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) reveal that 32,000 migrants currently live in Nouadhibou, about three-quarters of them arriving from Mauritania’s neighbours, Senegal and Mali.
According to the IOM survey, 70 per cent of these migrants say their primary need is to find a stable job and to have access to health care and housing.
But for some those may be temporary needs. Increasingly migrants are arriving with plans to leave Mauritania by sea, headed due west into the Canary Islands archipelago –part of Spain, therefore the European Union.
In the first month of 2020, 23 boats carrying 708 people arrived in the Canary Islands, far below the peak recorded in 2006, when 31,678 people reached its shores.
Following a shipwreck off the coast of Mauritania in December 2019, which claimed 62 lives, the need to strengthen the preparedness and predictability of rescue operations at sea along one of the main migratory routes arose.
IOM Mauritania Chief of Mission, Laura Lungarotti, says “interceptions and search and rescue operations on the Western Mediterranean route are on the rise so we need to ensure that migrants and refugees rescued at sea are disembarked through predictable mechanisms and that survivors receive immediate protection and assistance.”
“Only coordinated efforts, such as those, already in place with the Mauritanian authorities, can ensure that the most vulnerable are brought to safety in a timely manner.”
To increase their presence and strengthen cooperation with the authorities, IOM and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) inaugurated in the second week of February, a new joint office in Nouadhibou.
In Nouadhibou, IOM provides a wide range of protection and assistance services to vulnerable migrants, such as emergency food assistance, access to healthcare, child-tailored protection services, as well as assisted voluntary return and reintegration options.
IOM’s efforts in the Sahara region address these migration-related Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). SDG 10.7: Facilitating orderly, safe and regular migration and mobility; and SDG 17.18, increasing significantly the availability of high-quality, timely and reliable migration data.
The Western African migration route to the Canary Islands has been in use since at least 1994, with just over 100,000 irregular arrivals recorded by the Spanish authorities in these 25 years.
Though crossings to the Canary Islands have not made up a major portion of migrants arriving irregularly in Spain for the past decade, the number of arrivals has increased since 2018, leading to fears that more people are disappearing on this dangerous overseas journey.
IOM’s Missing Migrant’s Project reports 210 people died in 12 confirmed fatal shipwrecks in 2019 along the 1,400km-long Western Africa migration route which runs from Cabo Verde to the Canary Islands. At least 43 people died in five reported tragedies at sea in 2018.
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Since the Project started documenting deaths and disappearances on this route in 2014, at least 540 people have lost their lives on this route. Due to the length of the overseas journey, it is likely that many more disappear without a trace.
In 2019, 2,698 people arrived irregularly in the Canary Islands in 133 boats, an increase of 106.4 per cent compared with the arrivals recorded in 2018, when 1,307 people arrived in Spain via this route in 69 boats.