THE NUMBER of migrants using the perilous sea route across the Mediterranean from Morocco to Spain has more than tripled in a year, it has emerged.
The surge in boat arrivals on the so-called Western Mediterranean route has prompted a series of rescue missions in recent weeks, including 34 refugees saved from a burning dinghy near an island between the two countries.
More than 3,300 refugees crossed to Europe from the North African country in the first four months of this year – compared to just over a thousand in the same period in 2016 according to figures released last week.
The increase in numbers on the Spain to Morocco route comes after the European Union struck a deal with Ankara to stem the flow of migrants crossing from Turkey to Greece.
Following the agreement, just 7,043 made that crossing in the first five months of 2017 – compared to 156,267 in the same period last year.
While the figures, from the UN’s International Organisation for Migration, relate to sea crossings, many more refugees last year crossed into Europe by land from Turkey.
Last Sunday, more than 30 migrants were rescued off the coast of Spain after their rubber speed boat caught fire, forcing them into the water in a dramatic moment caught on camera.
The video tweeted by EU border agency Frontex shows the 34 migrants travelling on board a black boat Sunday when flames suddenly erupted at the back near the engine, and rapidly spread through the small vessel.
The migrants, most of whom appeared to be wearing life jackets, jumped into the water according to images caught on camera by a Portuguese air force plane helping Frontex with maritime surveillance, which threw them a small lifeboat and notified Spanish coastguards.
Some were able to scramble onto the lifeboat while others held onto their sinking vessel, the coastguards said in a statement.
A helicopter and several boats were dispatched to the area southwest of Alboran Island between Morocco and Spain.
Tomas Garcia, a manager at the coastguard centre in Spain’s southeastern Almeria province who has 24 years experience coordinating rescues was quoted as saying in the statement that this was one of the most complex his centre had seen.
The migrants, whose nationalities were not disclosed, were finally taken safe and sound to the port of Motril in southern Spain.
Last week, Spain’s maritime rescue service saved 157 migrants from five small boats attempting to cross the Mediterranean.
The crossing to Spain has accounted for 51 deaths so far this year – more than the Eastern Mediterranean Route from Turkey to Greece which, in the same period in 2016, saw 376 deaths.