Hopes fade for 49 immigrants missing after shipwreck near Spain’s Melilla

Only three survivors have been found after two days of search using wrong coordinates

The Spanish coastguard spent Tuesday night searching for 49 African immigrants feared dead after their boat capsized in the Alboran Sea, which separates Spain and North Africa. The coastguard’s Sar Mastelero vessel focused its search on the area around Spain’s tiny Alboran Island after three people were rescued from the half-sunken rubber boat on Tuesday at a location some 28 nautical miles from the islet.

The Spanish coastguard’s ‘Sar Mastelero’ searches the water of Alboran Island.
The Spanish coastguard’s ‘Sar Mastelero’ searches the water of Alboran Island.Salvamento Marítimo

Those survivors said the craft had been carrying more than 50 men and had capsized after being hit by a wave.

As of Wednesday morning there was “no news” of the men, the Spanish coastguard in the southern city of Almería told EL PAÍS. If their deaths are confirmed, this will easily rank as the most deadly such tragedy off Spain so far this year, the agency said.

Spain’s coastguard searched the wrong area for 48 hours after boat operators changed their launch location

Sixty immigrants have died this year trying to reach the Spanish coast, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which also notes that the Western Mediterranean route into Europe has now become more deadly than the eastern route through the Greek islands. However, the central route from Libya to Italy is considered the most lethal, with at least 2,247 immigrants dying so far this year, according to the IOM.

The Spanish coastguard is currently continuing to search for the missing men: a helicopter joined forces with the Sar Mastelero on Wednesday morning. However, hopes are fading “given the account of the survivors and the number of hours that have passed,” the agency has said.

The search for the men began after a 17-year-old and two 25-year-olds were rescued by helicopter on Tuesday from a boat described as “deflated and capsized.” They were transferred to a hospital in Spain’s Almería province suffering from starvation, dehydration and hypothermia. They were in a state of shock and unable to provide details of what had happened to them, according to Spanish news agency Europa Press.

A tweet with an image of the helicopter rescue of the three survivors on Tuesday

All indications suggest the vessel they were found clinging to was the same one that rescue services had been searching for two days earlier after an NGO had provided information that a boat with immigrants hoping to reach Spain had been launched from the coast in the Moroccan city of Al Hoceima at 8pm on Sunday.

However, it appears that the operators of the boat changed its point of departure to another position some 40 kilometers east of their original site in response to heightened security in Al Hoceima after months of protest against the Moroccan central government. The families of those traveling on the boat were not notified of the change, meaning rescue services were initially operating using incorrect information.

English version by George Mills.


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