A United Nations official said Thursday that 58 people drowned off the coast of the West African nation of Mauritania in one of the deadliest disasters of 2019, as they attempted to travel toward Europe.
The boat that left The Gambia on Nov. 27 was carrying at least 150 people, including women and children, CBS News reported. The boat then was to head to the Canary Islands to refuel and acquire more food, said U.N. official Laura Lungarotti.
“Many drowned. The ones who survived swam up to the Mauritanian coast close to the city of Nouadhibou,” she told CBS. “The Mauritanian authorities are very efficiently coordinating the response with the agencies currently present” in the city.
The report said that at least 83 people swam to shore through rough waters. It’s not clear if anyone is still missing.
More than 35,000 Gambian migrants came to Europe between 2014 and 2018, according to the U.N. migration agency, as reported by Time magazine.
Leonard Doyle, a spokesman for the U.N. migration agency, told Qatar-owned Al Jazeera that the boat was overcrowded and unfit to take on the sea.
“It speaks really to the callousness of the smugglers who of course have made their money and disappeared into the wilderness. That’s the problem here, people are being exploited, people are looking for a better life,” Doyle told Al Jazeera.
Until this incident, 97 people were estimated to have died this year attempting the Atlantic migration route, according to IOM. But many deaths are not recorded, as it is difficult to track the number of vessels that do not reach their destination or the number of passengers on board.
At the peak of the route’s popularity in the mid-2000s, tens of thousands of migrants reached the Canary Islands or died trying. Last year, the Guinea-Bissau coast guard reported that 60 migrants had probably drowned when their ship sank off the coast, but their bodies were never recovered.
Onyekachi Wambu, executive director of the African Foundation for Development, told Al Jazeera that the migration is, in part, due to young people searching for work.
“What you’re seeing is Africa exporting its labour in a very dysfunctional manner,” Wambu told the broadcaster. “West Africa is enjoying a period of growth, but it’s largely jobless growth. A lot of people are heading north because they can see by getting into Europe they can transform their lives.”
Reuters contributed to this report.