Spain and Morocco exchange blame for failing to rescue migrants stuck on a sinking boat 160 kilometres off the Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean.

It took 17 hours after distress calls were sent for a Spanish, and Moroccan rescue teams to arrive.(Photo by Jesus Merida/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Activists on Friday criticised Madrid and Rabat for failing to act faster to help migrants trying to reach Spain by boat, after at least two people died this week.

Spanish campaign group Caminando Fronteras, which takes calls from migrants or their loved ones about boats in distress, says 37 people are missing after their vessel sank on Wednesday.

Spanish rescue services say that two people, a man and a child, died and 24 people were rescued in the disaster which took place about 160 kilometres (100 miles) off the Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean.

Neither the Spanish rescue team nor Morocco, which took charge of the survivors, have confirmed the presence of any other passengers.

But there was growing criticism Friday of both countries for what campaigners say are longstanding flaws in their approach to saving migrants in distress.

 'Around 50 on board' 

Helena Maleno, of Caminando Fronteras, said it took 17 hours after the vessel sent out its distress call for a Spanish rescue aircraft and a Moroccan navy vessel to arrive.

She told Spanish broadcaster Canal Sur that the Spanish plane located the vessel -- an inflatable raft -- at around 8pm on Tuesday evening.

They decided that it was for Morocco to intervene, but it was hours before they actually contacted the authorities there -- and Morocco took hours more before acting, she added.

And all this "as people were panicking on an inflatable raft, without having eaten, exhausted", said Maleno.

Radio Cadena Ser broadcast a recording of the pilot who first spotted the vessel and who spoke of "around 50 people on board".

At that point, said the broadcaster, the Spanish rescue ship was an hour away from the vessel in distress.

Spain's rescue service issued a statement denying any responsibility for the migrant deaths, saying that their vessel had to head back to port as it had just rescued 63 people from another vessel, some of whom needed medical attention.

Insisting that the service had acted in line with international procedure, they said the inflatable raft was in waters under the joint responsibility of Morocco and Spain.

Morocco's navy had said it would take over coordination of the rescue, it added, given the vessel was much closer to the African coast than to the Canary Islands.

Authorities in Morocco failed to respond to several AFP requests for comment.

How many more?

Questioned by a journalist, Spanish government spokeswoman Isabel Rodriguez said she had no detailed information about the incident.

Spain's Defensor del Pueblo -- Defender of the People -- a commission elected by parliament to defend citizens' fundamental rights -- on Friday announced that it had opened an investigation into the affair.

Spain is a major gateway for migrants seeking a better life in Europe.

The number of boats heading for the Canaries from northwestern African -- often from the disputed territory of Western Sahara -- has increased in recent days due to favourable weather conditions.

Spain said Thursday evening that it had rescued at least 350 migrants from five vessels over a 24-hour period.

Save the Children drew parallels with the disaster a week earlier, when at least 78 migrants drowned in the Ionian Sea off Greece. Officials fear the final toll could run into the hundreds.

"How many more children will need to die on deadly sea routes before the EU finally takes action?" it said.

Since patrols have been stepped up in the Mediterranean off Spain, more migrants have tried the route west off the African coast towards the Canary Islands.

But because of the strong currents and poor state of the vessels, many of them have foundered during the crossing.

Caminando Fronteras, in a report published at the end of 2022, estimated that since 2018 more than 11,200 had died or were missing after having tried to reach Spain -- an average of six a day.

magnifier linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram