Spanish police investigating migrant boat deaths detain five

BARCELONA, Spain — Spanish police say they have detained five men for allegedly navigating two migrant boats to the Canary Islands and being responsible for the deaths of some of its passengers.

The men are being investigated for “favoring illegal immigration” with three of them also being investigated for homicide, Spain’s national police said in a statement released Friday. A judge ordered four of them to be held in custody.

The arrests come after an investigation was launched into two boats that arrived in the islands of Gran Canaria and Lanzarote on March 16 and April 2 respectively.

In the first boat, 62 migrants and asylum seekers had departed the coast of Dakhla, in Morocco-controlled Western Sahara, and spent five days with little food or water trying to reach the Canaries. When Spanish rescuers found them, only 53 people remained onboard, including 10 minors. None had life vests and many suffered from severe hypothermia requiring hospitalization.

Among them was a 2-year-old girl from Mali who died a few days later. Her dramatic rescue and subsequent death grabbed the national headlines in Spain. Survivors later reported that nine people had perished during the Atlantic crossing, including a toddler. Their bodies were thrown into the ocean according to survivors interrogated by police.

The other vessel that reached Lanzarote carried 32 people, including five minors. All arrived in good health, police said.

Earlier this year authorities in the Canaries detained 27 men and one woman in similar cases. Of those, 21 people were held in custody.

The treacherous Atlantic crossing from the Western coast of Africa to Spain’s Canary Islands has become a popular route for migrants and asylum-seekers fleeing conflict, violence and leaving their countries for economic reasons that have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. More than 2,400 people have reached the Canaries in the first three months of this year. Most hope to continue their journeys to continental Europe.

Last year 23,000 people reached the archipelago by boat and nearly 850 others died or went missing along the way, according to the U.N. migration agency’s Missing Migrants project.

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