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Dozens of migrants drown as boat sinks off Mauritania

Some survivors managed to swim ashore

By AFP - Dec 06,2019 - Last updated at Dec 06,2019

NOUAKCHOTT — At least 58 migrants trying reach Europe from West Africa died as their makeshift boat capsized off the coast of Mauritania, but dozens of survivors managed to swim to shore. 

Wednesday's sinking was the largest known loss of life along the West Africa smuggling route this year, and the sixth deadliest migrant drowning globally, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

The migrants "were mostly clandestine immigrants trying to reach Spain, coming from Banjul in Gambia”, Mauritania's interior ministry said in a statement released Wednesday night.

"At least 58 people are confirmed dead after a vessel carrying migrants sank as it approached the coast of Mauritania," the IOM said in a statement.

"Eighty-three others swam to shore and are receiving assistance."

The migrant vessel sunk some 25 kilometres north of the town of Nouadhibou, near the border with Western Sahara, a Mauritanian security official told AFP. 

"The craft hit a rock in the middle of the sea, it started taking on water and the engine fell apart," the official said. 

"They weren't far from the shore, but a large swell stopped them from reaching the coast by boat."

The official said there was nothing aboard and the migrants were hungry and cold so they jumped into the sea and started swimming. 

Survivors of Wednesday's sinking in Mauritania told the IOM there were at least 150 people aboard when the craft went down, including women and children.

The IOM said survivors had been trying to reach Spain's Canary Islands and that the boat left The Gambia on November 27.


 Western route 


Attempts to reach the Canary Islands from West African countries — known as the Western route — have increased in recent years as authorities have clamped down on crossings to Europe from Libya. 

Florence Kim, an IOM spokesperson, said that there has been a "semi deviation of the migration route".

Some 158 people are known to have died trying to reach the Canary Islands in total so far this year, according to the IOM, up from 43 last year. 

Mauritania's interior ministry also said the vessel was carrying between 150 and 180 people, adding that most of the passengers were between the ages of 20 and 30.

"Unfortunately, we counted 58 dead," the ministry said, adding that 10 survivors needed emergency medical treatment. 

It said that 85 survivors in total had been taken in, according to the norms of "human solidarity" and "African hospitality".

Those in need of treatment were transported to a hospital in Nouadhibou, where a doctor, who requested anonymity, said that survivors arrived "exhausted, starving, their morale at zero".

Laura Lungarotti, the head of the IOM mission in Mauritania, said the priority was now caring for the survivors.

Mauritanian authorities have contacted their Gambian counterparts, and the country's ambassador is expected to visit Nouadhibou. 

IOM spokeswoman Kim said the reasons behind migration from places such as The Gambia were complex, and not only economic. 

"Migration isn't just an individual decision, it's a family one. It's also a sort of initiation rite. You become a man once you've migrated," she said.

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