DThe boats from Mauritania are narrower than those from Senegal. Many are made of fiberglass rather than brightly painted wood. They are not only piling up in the fishing port of La Restinga on El Hierro: in January, 110 migrant boats from the West African country landed on the coast of the Spanish Canary Islands. 7,270 migrants were on board, most of them from the civil war-torn country of Mali. Last weekend there were 1,154 migrants, two of whom died shortly after arrival.

According to the aid organization Caminando Fronteras, at least 395 people died during the crossing from Mauritania to the Canary Islands in 2023. The Canary Islands regional government said that if arrivals continue at this level, the record number of more than 40,000 arrivals last year could double.

Spain wants to double aid

The EU and the Spanish government reacted unusually quickly. On Thursday, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez landed together in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, from where 83 percent of migrant boats now set sail for Spain. Both politicians landed with heavy luggage – Europe has decided to embrace Mauritania: The EU and Spain are supporting the country, which is one of the poorest in the world, with a total of around 500 million euros. 210 million come from the EU Commission and 300 million from Spain. These are financial aid and loans to improve border protection and develop the country.

The joint trip was reminiscent of the Commission President's two visits to Tunis last year. At that time she came with Giorgia Meloni, the head of government of Italy, which had the most migrant boats heading to last year. The EU promised Tunisia 100 million euros for border protection and a good one billion euros in financial aid. But cooperation with Tunisia is not progressing.

In Mauritania, von der Leyen and Sánchez tried to avoid the impression that this visit was mainly about money for more border protection. There had been speculation in Spain that European generosity towards other transit states might have aroused desire in the African country. Accordingly, the migrants would have been used as political pressure, as Tunisia and Morocco did in the past. Both emphasized that they also wanted to talk to the Mauritanian government leaders about security, political stability and the fight against poverty.

“Green” hydrogen on the agenda

A separate meeting dealt with “green” hydrogen, with which the African country, which consists of eighty percent desert, could one day also supply Europe. Mauritania, which is politically stable compared to the rest of the region and is considered a reliable partner, is struggling with major economic problems. It relies largely on the export of iron ore and its fishing fleet. But given the poverty, more and more young Mauritanians are making their way to Spain. However, most migrants come from Mali.

According to the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR, more than 115,000 Malian refugees and asylum seekers were registered at the beginning of the year, while the EU speaks of 150,000. More than 90,000 live in the Mbera camp alone. But there are probably many more because many migrants do not register while transiting to Europe. Canary Islands politicians speak of up to 300,000 people who were waiting for an opportunity to escape.

Spain and Mauritania have had close relations for years. Madrid was the African country's key advocate in Brussels. Madrid had also successfully campaigned in Brussels for Morocco, from where most migrants came to Europe for years. A Spanish police mission has been supporting the Mauritanian border guard since 2006. There are currently around fifty Spanish officials working there. According to their own information, they prevented at least 7,000 people from leaving last year. But the borders, which are more than 5,000 kilometers long, are difficult to monitor.

The flow of migrants in West Africa resembles communicating tubes. Since the end of the diplomatic crisis between Morocco and Spain, the security forces there have been taking tougher measures again. Only a few migrants come to Europe from the North African country, as recently also from Senegal. By late autumn most of the boats had left for the Canary Islands. The Spanish government then increased the pressure on the government in Dakar and intensified cooperation with the security forces. The numbers in Senegal decreased and those in Mauritania increased. Now the crisis in Senegal is worsening again.