SAINT-LOUIS, Senegal: The small mounds of sand that dot the beach in northern Senegal blend into the terrain. But thick rope juts out from beneath the piles. Pieces of black plastic bags are scattered nearby, and green netting is strewn on top.
That’s how residents in the small fishing town of Saint-Louis say they know where the bodies lie.
These unmarked beach graves hold untold numbers of West African migrants who are increasingly attempting the treacherous journey across parts of the Atlantic to Europe, Senegalese authorities, residents along the coast and survivors of failed boat trips told The Associated Press.
Bodies wash ashore or are found by fishermen at sea, then are buried by authorities with no clarity as to whether the deaths are documented or investigated as required by Senegalese and international law, according to lawyers and human rights experts. Most of the families of those buried will never know what happened to their loved ones.
The route from West Africa to Spain is one of the world’s most dangerous, yet the number of migrants leaving from Senegal on rickety wooden boats has surged over the past year. That means more missing people and deaths — relatives, activists and officials have reported hundreds over the past month, though exact figures are difficult to verify.
The increases come amid European Union pressure for North and West African countries to stop migrant crossings. Like most nations in the region, Senegal releases little information about the crossings, the migrants who attempt the trip or those who die trying.
But according to the International Organisation for Migration, at least 2,300 migrants left Senegal trying to reach Spain’s Canary Islands in the first six months of the year, doubling the number from the same period in 2022. A Spanish official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the figures weren’t authorized for release, told AP that about 1,100 arrived in the Canaries.
It’s unclear what happened to the 1,000-plus people who didn’t make it to Spain. They may have died at sea, been rescued from capsized boats or be held by authorities. Through June, Senegal detained 725 migrants, said interior ministry spokesman Maham Ka, though officials wouldn’t say whether the nine vessels involved had left shore yet.
Authorities in Saint-Louis admitted to AP that bodies are sometimes buried on the beach. They said it happens only when approved by the local prosecutor — and usually the bodies are severely decomposed.
“Why take it to the morgue since no one can recognize it?” said Amadou Fall, fire brigade commander for three northern Senegal regions.
The prosecutor in Saint-Louis wouldn’t respond to questions about approval of burials or say whether investigations were opened into the deaths. AP phoned and texted Senegal’s justice ministry, responsible for investigating deaths, but received no response.
For families, the silence can be agonizing. Mouhamed Niang’s 19- and 24-year-old nephews went missing a month ago. He filed missing-person reports, he said, but got no updates from authorities. Friends alerted him when boats were recovered or bodies washed ashore. He’d make the three-hour bus trip from Mbour north to Saint-Louis to check with officials or visit the morgue.
He told AP he knows about the bodies on the beach. His worst fear: that the young men were among them.
“They are human beings,” Niang, 51, said. “They should be buried where human beings are buried.” AP
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