A wooden boat crammed with 280 people that arrived at the Canary island of El Hierro on Tuesday is thought to be the most crowded migrant vessel to have reached the Spanish archipelago after traversing the perilous Atlantic route from west Africa.
More than 500 people reached El Hierro on Tuesday alone, as smugglers took advantage of the calmer autumn weather to ferry people to the Canaries. Emergency services reported another boat arriving with 79 people, while 127 others were rescued from the sea.
Spain’s maritime rescue service said one of its vessels had accompanied the most populated boat, which was carrying 268 men, two women and 10 children, into the port of La Restinga on Tuesday afternoon.
According to the Red Cross, which helped the people as they reached port, the vessel was carrying the largest number of arrivals recorded in one boat. They are believed to have set out from Senegal.
Txema Santana, a journalist specialising in migration and a former adviser to the Canaries regional government, also said he had never seen so many people arrive in a single small boat, or cayuco.
“In all the time I’ve been following this route close up, I have never seen a cayuco with so many people onboard,” he wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. “They were very lucky to reach land. When they see how far they made it on the map, they’re not going to believe it.”
Between 1 January and 30 September, 14,976 people arrived on the Canaries, an increase of 19.8% compared with the same period in 2022, according to the latest figures from Spain’s interior ministry.
The migratory route to the Canary Islands, on which shipwrecks are frequent, has been particularly busy in recent years because of tighter controls in the Mediterranean.
Since the beginning of this year, 140 people have died or disappeared during crossings, according to data from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) from early September.
The Spanish NGO Caminando Fronteras (Walking Borders), which fields emergency calls from those at sea or their relatives, estimates that 778 people died or disappeared on the Atlantic route in the first half of the year.
Fernando Clavijo, the regional president of the Canary Islands, called for more help from the central government.
“Dealing with the migration crisis in the Canaries should be a priority for the state,” he said on Tuesday. “There needs to be solidarity with the islands, and those that risk their lives at sea need to be treated with dignity. We will not stop demanding urgent responses to the humanitarian drama.”
In 2006 – the year of the so-called “cayuco crisis” – 36,000 people reached the Spanish archipelago in small and hazardous fishing boats.
According to the IOM, between January and December 2022, 15,682 people reached the Canary Islands by boat from west Africa, a decrease of 30%, or 6,634 people compared with the previous year.
Agence France-Presse and Reuters contributed to this report