NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania — At least 58 migrants have drowned after a boat capsized off the West African nation of Mauritania and scores tried to swim through rough waters to safety, officials said.
It was one of the deadliest disasters this year among people making the perilous journey to Europe.
The boat, which left Gambia on Nov. 27, was headed toward the Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago off the northwestern coast of Africa, when it tried to approach Mauritania to get fuel and food, Laura Lungarotti, chief of the Mauritania mission with the United Nations migration agency, said on Wednesday.
“Many drowned,” she added. “The ones who survived swam up to the Mauritanian coast close to the city of Nouadhibou.”
At least 83 people swam to shore and were receiving treatment, the agency said. Interior Minister Mohamed Salem Ould Merzoug said 10 people were taken to a hospital for “urgent” treatment. The survivors were receiving care in accordance with “human solidarity, fraternity and African hospitality,” the minister’s statement said.
The Mauritanian authorities also said security forces had found 85 survivors, and the search for an unknown number of missing people continued on Thursday. The boat held as many as 180 people, most of them ages 20 to 30.
Mauritania will open an investigation into those responsible for the tragedy, including possible trafficking networks, the statement said.
Between 2005 and 2010, thousands died off Mauritania’s coast in attempts to reach the Canary Islands, but that traffic later calmed, the statement said. But in recent months, the authorities have detained boats carrying hundreds of migrants mostly from Senegal, a neighbor of Gambia, it said.
There was no immediate statement from the authorities in Gambia, where tens of thousands of people have set off in hopes of reaching Europe in recent years. More than 35,000 Gambians arrived in Europe between 2014 and 2018, according to the United Nations migration agency.
President Yahya Jammeh’s 22-year oppressive rule severely affected the country’s economy, which contributed greatly to the exodus. Since Mr. Jammeh fled into exile in January 2017 after a surprise election loss, European countries have been pushing to return asylum seekers.
But Gambia’s economy still suffers. The coastal nation was shaken this year by the collapse of the British travel company Thomas Cook. At the time, Gambia’s tourism minister said the government had convened an emergency meeting on the collapse, while some Gambians said the shutdown could have a devastating impact on tourism, which contributes more than 30 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.