This Is the Story of One African 'Ghost Boat'

43 migrants set off with hope, but they became casualties of a dangerous new route
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Apr 27, 2023 11:10 AM CDT
Piecing Together the Story of One African 'Ghost Boat'
This undated photo provided by his family shows Alassane Sow on the beach in Nouakchott, Mauritania. Sow went missing on the night of Jan. 12, 2021, after boarding a boat from Mauritania in an attempt to reach Europe's Canary Islands. His body was found more than four months later near Trinidad and...   (Family photo via AP)

Around 6:30am on May 28, 2021, a couple of miles from Belle Garden Beach on the Caribbean island of Tobago, a narrow white-and-blue boat drifted onto the horizon. From a distance, it seemed no one was aboard. But as fishermen approached, they smelled death. Inside were the decomposing bodies of more than a dozen Black men. No one knew where they were from, what brought them there, why they were aboard—and how or why they died. No one knew their names. What is clear now, but wasn't then, is this: One hundred and thirty-five days earlier, 43 people were believed to have left a port city across the ocean in Africa. They were trying to reach Spain's Canary Islands, off Africa's northwest coast. They never arrived. Instead, they ended up here, on the other side of the Atlantic.

For nearly two years, the AP assembled puzzle pieces from across three continents to uncover the story of this boat—and the people it carried from hope to death. The vessel that reached Tobago was registered in Mauritania, a large and mostly deserted country in northwest Africa nearly 3,000 miles away. Evidence found on the boat—and its style and color as a typical Mauritanian "pirogue"—suggested the dead were likely African migrants who were trying to reach Europe but got lost in the Atlantic. In 2021, at least seven boats appearing to be from northwest Africa washed up in the Caribbean and in Brazil. All carried dead bodies.

The AP investigation included interviews with dozens of relatives and friends, officials, and forensic experts, as well as police documents and DNA testing. It found that 43 young men from Mauritania, Mali, Senegal, and possibly other West African nations boarded the boat. The AP has identified 33 of them by name. They departed the Mauritanian port city of Nouadhibou in the middle of the night between Jan. 12 and Jan. 13, 2021. Clothing and DNA testing confirmed the identity of one of the bodies, bringing closure to one family and opening the way for others to seek the same. A forensic pathologist in Tobago concluded the men most likely died of "dehydration and hypothermia as a consequence of being lost at sea."

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These "ghost boats"—and likely many others that have vanished—are in part an unintended result of years of efforts and billions of dollars spent by Europe to stop crossings on the Mediterranean Sea. That crackdown, along with other factors such as economic disruption from the pandemic, pushed migrants to return to the far longer, more obscure, and more dangerous Atlantic route to Europe from northwest Africa via the Canaries instead. In 2021, at least 1,109 people died or disappeared trying to reach the Canaries, according to the International Organization for Migration, the deadliest year on record. But that's likely a fraction of the real death toll. The men in the Tobago boat, for example, aren't included in this number. Read the full story, with details on the men who died. (Or read other Longform stories.)

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