Ombudsman will investigate if Spain delayed migrant rescue

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Spain’s ombudsman is to investigate the sinking of a dinghy headed to the Canary Islands from Morocco on Wednesday after more than 30 migrants were feared dead.

Migration-focused organizations Walking Borders and Alarm Phone criticized Spain and Morocco this week for not intervening earlier to rescue the vessel’s passengers. Spain says all proper procedures were followed.

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Walking Borders said the dinghy sank on Wednesday 40 miles off the African coast, 12 hours after the first requests for help were made. The two groups said around 60 people were on board.

Two people, a child and an adult man, were found dead while 24 migrants were rescued by Morocco, Spain’s maritime rescue service said.

The ombudsman is tasked with monitoring any possible breaches of civil liberties by the state and can make recommendations to parliament, while the government is constitutionally mandated to acknowledge and react to its reports.

He last year ruled Spain failed to uphold domestic and international law in returning nearly 500 migrants to Morocco following a mass border crossing from Spain’s North African enclave of Melilla in which at least 23 people died.

At the time it sank, the dinghy was located in waters off Western Sahara. Although Morocco administers a majority of the former Spanish colony, the area’s sovereignty remains under dispute and the United Nations lists it as a non-self governing territory.

The migrant rights activists accuse Spain of failing in its duty of care because they say the dinghy was within the country’s search-and-rescue region under international law, meaning Madrid should have led the operation instead of Rabat.

Although a Spanish rescue service ship, the Guardamar Caliope, was only 40 miles away from the dinghy on Tuesday evening, it had already rescued 63 people in a separate incident and authorities ordered it to return to port as several of them needed medical attention, Spain’s Transport Ministry said on Friday.

The ministry statement said the maritime rescue service complied with international search and rescue procedures.

“At no time did the Moroccan authorities ask Spain’s rescue service for assistance or mobilization of resources, except in the final moments when the mobilization of a helicopter was requested. The resources are always at the disposal of any emergency and this was no exception,” a ministry source added.

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