Spain Sends Drones to Senegal to Try to Contain a Deepening Migrant Crisis

The United States isn’t the only major Western nation looking to drones to monitor and contain a migrant influx.  In the Mediterranean, thousands of migrants are streaming from the West African coast of Senegal to Spain’s Canary Islands, overwhelming the area and outstripping Senegal’s interdiction capabilities.

Senegal already deploys boats and helicopters in joint patrols with Spain to try to deter the illegal migrant flows.  But last week, Spain agreed to send Senegal six drones to aid those containment efforts.  It’s the first known deployment of UAVs for maritime immigrant control anywhere on the African continent.

Immigrants leaving Senegal – and neighboring Mauritania, about 32,000 so far this year, a record – hope to use the Canary Islands as a stepping stone not just to the Spanish mainland but to other destinations in Europe.   Typically, they are youth and minors that agree to be smuggled inside old artisanal fishing boats for a treacherous boat journey that lasts about a week.  A large number of these rickety boats shipwreck or sink before ever reaching their destination.

Spain is anxious to find new ways to discourage these illegal flows, which pose a humanitarian crisis for Spanish authorities in the Canary Islands, which are increasingly overwhelmed by the influx. Senegal and Spain have faced a migrant crisis in the past – in 2006, about 31,000 illegal immigrants were making the same perilous journey annually.  The flows declined after Senegal entered a period of internal stability but in recent months, the country has experienced renewed political unrest.

The country’s major opposition party, especially popular with Senegalese youth, was dissolved, and a growing number of its members have fled political persecution, increasingly by sea.

In theory, increased drone patrols will help Senegalese authorities identify smuggler’s fishing vessels in coastal areas before they make it out to the high seas and run the highest risk of shipwreck.  Drone patrols might also identify vessels that have foundered in deep ocean waters and assist Spanish and Senegalese authorities to rescue the survivors.

Currently, authorities interdict less than 10% of the illegal migrants that set off for Spain.  In addition to drones, Spain has agreed to provide Senegal with more coast guard vessels and helicopters while increasing its own maritime patrols. Spain is working on enhanced interdiction with neighboring  Mauritania, another source of illegal migrants at sea, but so far Senegal is the only country to receive drones from Spain.

Spain’s ability to provide Senegal with UAVs reflects the country’s burgeoning indigenous drone industry, which is fast becoming a European trend setter.  The country boasts an unusually strong technological base, favorable government regulations, and highly skilled professionals, making it a highly attractive destination for drone companies, investors and innovators.

DronePrecision, AirMap, UAV-Tech, and UAVision, which together cover a variety of applications, including precision agriculture, 3D mapping, aerial surveillance and military security, are currently among the leading Spanish drone companies.  While about 10% of these companies are large drone manufacturers employing hundreds of people, Spain’s UAV industry is dominated by a plethora of start-ups.

Senegal is also establishing its own fledgling drone industry, with a single company, Flying Labs, the nation’s flagship.  Flying Labs covers the full range of drone commercial applications but the company does not currently operate in the defense and security realm.

For this reason, and as part of its ongoing diplomatic relations with Senegal, its top African ally, the Spanish government is donating all six of the drones Senegal will deploy for aerial surveillance of migrant fishing vessels.

“We must stop this irregular migration which is putting too many lives at risk,” Spain’s Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska said last week at a joint press conference with his Senegalese counterpart announcing the government’s drone gift.

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