By Edward McAllister
MECKHE, Senegal (Reuters) - Seven neighbours from a village in western Senegal boarded a fishing boat crammed with migrants just after midnight on Oct. 26. Their destination: Europe, 1000 miles away over open ocean.
Two of them are now missing, presumed dead, after the boat carrying dozens of people capsized in a collision with the Senegalese coastguard.
One can barely walk from his injuries. Another is haunted by the memory of clinging to a piece of flotsam while others around him flailed and sank into the black ocean.
"You see people die in front of you and you cannot do anything," survivor Sidi Gaye told Reuters before pausing and lowering his head.
Driven by economic hardship during the coronavirus pandemic that has forced thousands to seek a better life, around 17,000 migrants have arrived on the Canary Islands this year, an over 1,000% increase from 2019, according to Spanish Interior Ministry data.
The surge in migrants to Spain's autonomous community off the coast of northwestern Africa alarms observers who say thousands could be dying en route without detection.
Unlike the Mediterranean Sea route from Libya to southern Europe, the wooden fishing boats on the choppy Atlantic do not carry satellite phones, and people cannot make distress calls.
Alarm Phone, a hotline service for migrants stranded at sea, said reports indicate that over 400 from Senegal are known to have died since the beginning of October alone.
"Invisible shipwrecks must occur ... due to the lack of possibilities for boats to communicate once they are far from the coast," said Paola Arenas from Alarm Phone. There is no cell phone reception for at least 70% of the two-week trip, she said.
Spanish security forces said they will deploy at least three boats, a plane, a helicopter and a submarine to slow the flow. However, it is unclear how the deployment will drastically cut departures from Senegal's long coastline where thousands of identical looking fishing boats trawl the waters daily - or if it will be a deterrent for those desperate to leave.
Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya is expected in Senegal on Nov. 21 to discuss the issue.
In all, 21 men departed the village of Meckhe, in north-west Senegal, together before dawn on Oct. 25. Only seven made it on the boat, which left in a hurry when it heard the coastguard was near.
"I have always dreamed of ... working in Senegal, creating jobs," said Abdou Aziz, a 22-year-old shop owner from Meckhe who scraped together $700 for the boat. "Since COVID, everything changed. Everything has become more expensive."
Soon after leaving, the Senegalese coastguard ordered the boat to stop, said four survivors, but the captain sped up. During an hour-long chase, the patrol boat fired tear gas at the migrants and passed in front of the boat to create waves to slow it down.
Eventually, the coastguard rammed the fishing boat, causing it to capsize, throwing about 80 passengers into the water, the survivors said. When people cried for help, the coastguard waited for 15 minutes before it picked anyone up, they said.
"I was in the place where the boat hit us and I was thrown into the water. I cannot swim, I didn't have any help," said Mohamed Diop, 30. Traumatized, and now needing crutches to walk, Diop spends his days in a windowless bedroom watching music videos with the lights off.
In a statement on Oct. 26, the Senegalese army said a collision occurred and that it saved 39 people. It did not say how many drowned. An army spokesman declined to comment on the migrants' allegations on Wednesday but said an inquiry was underway.
Meanwhile, the group has returned to Meckhe, a collection of single-storey houses and shops on a dusty highway surrounded by parched savannah - the place they had tried to escape. Some are already planning to try again.
"I still want to go," said Aziz. "I'm not afraid of death."
(Reporting By Edward McAllister; Additional reporting by Joan Faus in Madrid and Diadie Ba in Senegal; Editing by Bate Felix and Aurora Ellis)