Deaths at sea en route to Europe continue despite COVID-19

Canary Islands graph showing data on irregular people movement. Photo: IOM

Berlin – More than 2,000 people lost their lives at sea attempting to reach Europe in 2020, despite the extensive mobility restrictions imposed last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new report from the International Organization for Migration (IOM)’s Missing Migrants Project. Another 300 deaths already have been documented thus far in 2021. 

“No one should have to risk their life to flee violence or instability, or to simply seek a better life,” said Frank Laczko, Director of IOM’s Global Migration Data Analysis Centre (GMDAC) in Berlin.  

“It will be important in the current discussions between the EU and African countries to prioritize concerted action to save lives and end this ongoing crisis of deaths,” Laczko added. 

The new report—Maritime Migration to Europe: Focus on the Overseas Route to the Canary Islands—highlights key facts and figures on four main overseas irregular routes to Europe, along which over 22,000 lives have been lost since 2014. This figure likely does not capture all deaths en route to Europe during this time. As the report discusses, better migration data can help to support lifesaving policy and programmes. 

Of particular concern is the maritime route to the Canary Islands, which saw a marked increase in attempted crossings and deaths in 2020, despite the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing travel restrictions. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that the coronavirus acted as a multiplier of existing factors motivating migration on this route. Many of those attempting the Canary Islands crossing worked in fishing or agriculture, two sectors that have been particularly hard-hit by COVID-19.  

IOM recorded the loss of nearly 850 lives on this route in 2020, far more than recorded in any previous year since 2014, when the Missing Migrants Project began its work. However, that count may well be low. Due to the length of the overseas journey (and the fact that many migrants are believed to have lost their lives due to starvation or dehydration while at sea) the number of deaths documented en route to the Canary Islands falls short of the true total. 

Case in point: not included in these data are at least five additional shipwrecks reported to IOM’s Missing Migrants Project in 2020 which could not be confirmed. These “invisible” shipwrecks – reported by NGOs in direct contact with those on board and/or with families searching for missing people – left no survivors. Moreover, no search-and-rescue operation is known to have occurred in response to distress calls made by those on board. Such cases are extremely difficult to detect, let alone verify. Yet they indicate that deaths on maritime routes to Europe are far higher than available data show. 

That leaves thousands of families searching endlessly for news of those lost. Those who lose their lives on the Canary Islands route are too often buried without a name, if buried at all. The remains of at least 1,000 people remain missing in the Atlantic Sea crossing, according to Missing Migrants Project data. Remains of another 14,000 human are unaccounted for in the Mediterranean Sea. 

Despite this, maritime migration to Europe continues to be framed as an issue of migrant arrivals, ignoring data that show the number of people arriving irregularly in Europe is extremely low compared to overall regular migratory flows from North and West Africa to Europe.  

“The true crisis on maritime routes to Europe is the thousands of deaths recorded every year due to the lack of safe, legal and dignified mobility options,” said Julia Black, author of the new report. “Improved search-and-rescue capacities on all maritime routes to Europe are urgently needed.” 

Read the new report “Maritime Migration to Europe: focus on the overseas route to the Canary Islands” here. The data used for this report can be downloaded from IOM’s Missing Migrants Project website here

For more information please contact: Julia Black, IOM’s Global Migration Data Analysis Centre. Tel.: +49 30 278 778 27  Email: 

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