Deadly boat fire highlights the dangerous migration route from Senegal to the Canary Islands

A fire broke out on a canoe off the coast of Senegal on October 23. (Screengrab from social media)
A fire broke out on a canoe off the coast of Senegal on October 23. (Screengrab from social media)

People across Senegal are reacting with shock and sadness to the news that a deadly fire engulfed a canoe carrying migrants bound for the Canary Islands in the waters off of M’bour, Senegal on October 23. At least 10 people have been confirmed dead, but survivors say the number of casualties is much higher and may reach over 100 in the coming days. Those on board were among the rising number of Senegalese making a desperate attempt to reach the Canary Islands, which belong to Spain and are considered a gateway to Europe. Our Observer met survivors of the accident, who were rescued by the Senegalese navy and local fishermen.

To reach the Spanish archipelago, the Canary Islands, from Senegal, migrants have to travel more than 1,400km across the Atlantic, a long and dangerous journey. The risks came into sharp focus on October 23, when news broke that at least 10 people died trying to reach the Canaries when their boat caught fire. 

A video, filmed by local fishermen, shows thick black smoke in the distance. Another video shows two survivors swimming up to the side of a boat. These videos have been shared widely on WhatsApp and other social media applications and have received extensive coverage in the Senegalese media. Photos said to show those killed in the tragedy have also been circulating online.

On October 23, the Senegalese Armies’ press division (DIRPA) stated that a Spanish patrol vessel discovered the canoe in distress about 80kmoff the shores of M’bour. This Spanish vessel and the Senegalese Navy managed to rescue 51 passengers, according to DIRPA. Others were rescued by fishermen operating in the area.

'Interception of two canoes today. One at 5:00 a.m. 50 km from Dakar with 111 migrants by the French Navy, handed over to the police in Dakar. The other off Mbour by Spanish patrol boat, following a fire onboard the canoe. 51 survivors transported to the naval base.' Posted on Twitter October 23.

Two days later, Senegalese President Macky Sall announced that “more than a dozen young countrymen” had died when an explosion occurred in the motor of a boat.

'It was with great emotion that I learned of the explosion, at sea, of the engine of a canoe carrying young compatriots. A tragedy that caused the loss of more than a dozen young people,' Senegalese President Macky Sall posted on Twitter.

The FRANCE 24 Observers team received a number of audio messages explaining that the canoe had set sail, empty, from Saint Louis. The passengers embarked near M’bour. Many of them were from the Pikine neighborhood in Saint Louis.

'They know this route offers only two possibilities: die or succeed'

For the time being, it is not clear just how many people died in the tragedy. Our Observer Petit Ndiaye is a blogger and heads the communication department for the city of Saint Louis. He managed to meet some of the survivors, who told him that there were between 150 and 200 people on board:


"> ">I was contacted by several young survivors who had been rescued and brought back to Dakar by local fishermen. I met seven young people, between the ages of 20 and 35, all of whom came from the Pikine neighbourhood in Saint Louis. They told me that they didn’t have any information about what had caused the accident, though they said the motor was new. They thought some kind of technical failure occurred, causing the motor to catch fire. The situation got worse because there were canisters of petrol on board. They said it turned into an every man for himself kind of situation and those who knew how to swim managed to save themselves.

The men I spoke to were clearly traumatised and still in a state of shock. One man had watched a friend drown; the friend asked him to take care of his family for him. They still don’t know what happened to some of their friends. ">

'Going back to Saint Louis will be hard for them'


For the time being, these men are still in Dakar, where they spoke with law enforcement. Going back to Saint Louis will be hard for them. There is real shame in failing to succeed in the migration journey. Many also left without telling close friends and family what they were doing so they will have to explain that too. Most would rather wait in Dakar for things to calm down for awhile, so they can avoid the social pressure.

This is the precise moment where we need to act and work on prevention. We need to help these young men to reintegrate. We also need to work with their families so that they facilitate this process instead of putting pressure on them, which might push some to attempt the journey again. In the coming days, I am going to go with other young activists in Saint Louis to visit the families of the victims to offer our condolences and speak to the community about the dangers of this kind of migration. The mayor is doing this as well. A lot of families in the area have already started their grieving process. At least 20 young people from Saint Louis died. But, for the time being, no one knows the exact numbers. ">

'They know this route offers only two possibilities: die or succeed'


The survivors told us that there were young people from different parts of the country in the canoe. But most of the young people from Saint Louis all came from the same neighbourhood and knew each other. These young men were desperate for a future: they did odd jobs here and there but didn’t make enough money to support their families. They know this route offers only two possibilities: die or succeed. The dangers of the sea are well known.

This tragedy has affected people deeply. There have been other pirogues that went down during this crossing in the past. But, this time, there has been a lot of coverage of the incident and the videos have been widely shared. Politicians have spoken up, adding their voices to the fight against undocumented migration.

'I have seen young people who are idle and helpless. Sadness and despair could be read on their faces,' our Observer posted on October 26.

The number of young people attempting to enter Europe by reaching the Canary Islands has grown in recent weeks. Our Observers say that many of those leaving come from fishing communities, which are suffering from a decrease in stock, and young people affected by the economic crisis sparked by Covid-19 pandemic.

'This Saturday around 9pm, following an operation meticulously planned for days, the Central Police Station of Mbour proceeded to arrest Sadibou Niang, a well-known migrant trafficker, and three of his associates," our Observer posted on October 25. 

In a statement published on October 27, the Senegalese government said that the Senegalese Navy, working with Spanish police and local boaters, had intercepted five canoes between October 7 and 25. The government further stated that "388 people had been rescued" in these operations and that there had been a "surge in illegal immigration by sea”.

The Senegalese government also said that it would bolster sea surveillance operations with additional ships and aircraft. Senegalese President Macky Sall has called for “increased vigilance and cooperation with law enforcement to save the lives of young people tempted to migrate".

This article was written by Maëva Poulet.