Three men survived an 11-day journey perched precariously atop the rudder of an oil tanker en route from Nigeria to Spain’s Canary Islands, the Spanish coast guard said Monday, as Europe sees its highest level of irregular migration in five years.
The stowaways, straddling a narrow strip of metal and exposed to the elements, traveled on the Malta-flagged Alithini II, which left Lagos on Nov. 17, according to the ship tracking site Marine Traffic. The tanker arrived Monday evening in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria — one of Spain’s Canary Islands, located off the coast of North Africa. The ports are nearly 3,000 miles apart.
In a photo shared by the Spanish coast guard on Twitter, the three men sit on the sliver of the ship’s rudder that protrudes from the water, their backs hunched against the vessel’s hull. A coast guard rescue boat picked up the men and brought them to the Las Palmas port to be treated by health services, the coast guard tweeted.
The survivors were from Nigeria, the Spanish government’s delegation in the Canary Islands told the Associated Press. One of them was still hospitalised Tuesday.
“The survival odyssey is far beyond fiction,” Txema Santana, a migration adviser to authorities in the Canary Islands, wrote on Twitter. “It is not the first and it will not be the last. Stowaways do not always have the same luck.”
The rescue comes amid tensions within the European Union over migration policy, as countries in southern Europe — France and Italy in particular — argue over who should take in the growing number of migrants who are arriving by sea.
More than 165,000 irregular migrants, many of them seeking asylum, have arrived in Europe this year, the highest number since 2017, when 187,499 were recorded, according to the International Organisation for Migration.
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The journey of the three stowaways is an outlier in recent migration patterns to Europe. The bloc has seen an uptick in arrivals during the past month, said Charlotte Slente, secretary general of the Danish Refugee Council, an aid agency that works in dozens of countries. But recently, most asylum seekers have been arriving through overland routes, crossing the Balkans and moving westward through Europe.
Nearly 30,000 migrants have arrived in Spain in 2022, a decrease compared with recent years, according to data from UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency. More than 14,000 of those have landed on the shores of the Canary Islands, often on packed, rickety boats, many inflatable and not suitable for ocean travel. The crossing is dangerous — 1,153 people died or went missing along the route to the Canary Islands last year, UNHCR said.
“In general, we have been seeing migrants and refugees continue to resort to perilous sea and land journeys, reflective of the desperation and vulnerabilities they may face, as well as the lack of sufficient, alternative, safer pathways,” UNHCR spokeswoman Shabia Mantoo said in an email Tuesday. “These include stowing away in vessels or airless containers, and taking to sea in leaky boats among others.”
It is rare, though not unprecedented, for asylum seekers to stow away on commercial ships. The Spanish coast guard has responded to six similar cases over the last two years, Sofía Hernández, head of the rescue service’s coordination center in Las Palmas, told the AP. “It is very dangerous,” she said of the journey aboard the ship’s rudder. A 14-year-old, in the company of older migrants, made the voyage from Nigeria atop a rudder in 2020, the Spanish newspaper El Pais reported.
The coronavirus pandemic and resulting border closures prompted asylum seekers and migrants to take more dangerous routes from Africa to Europe, many with the help of smugglers, according to UNHCR.
“There have been a lot of efforts in recent years to actually control borders, which has hampered access for people in need of protection and asylum quite remarkably,” Slente said, adding that her organization has observed an increasing number of cases in which European border authorities push asylum seekers back to the countries they came from.
Nearly 2,000 people have lost their lives this year on the Mediterranean and northwest African maritime routes as they attempted to reach Europe, Mantoo said.
“What is needed is more state-led and better-coordinated search and rescue efforts, predictable disembarkations in places of safety, and expedited access to screening and asylum procedures to identify those who may need international protection, and return — in safety and with dignity — those who do not,” Filippo Grandi, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, said in a statement ahead of a meeting of E.U. interior ministers last week.
The ministers gathered in Brussels to discuss an action plan for the central Mediterranean, another major migration route to Europe. Part of that plan involves implementing the voluntary “Solidarity Declaration” agreed to in June regarding migrants who arrive by sea in southern member states, distributing them elsewhere in Europe.
“We cannot continue working by addressing one crisis at a time or one ship at a time,” Margaritis Schinas, European Commission vice president in charge of coordinating the bloc’s Migration and Asylum Pact, told reporters, according to Germany’s DW News.