Dozens are feared dead in a tragedy that bears strong similarities to a disaster in December in which migrants had drowned on their journey from Mauritania to Spain's Canary Islands.

African migrants seeking to cross to the Canary Islands typically travel in small wooden boats like these. Smugglers' vessels are notoriously prone to engine failure and overloading.
African migrants seeking to cross to the Canary Islands typically travel in small wooden boats like these. Smugglers' vessels are notoriously prone to engine failure and overloading. (AFP)

Forty people are feared dead after a migrant vessel capsized off the coast of Mauritania, in a fresh tragedy along the Atlantic migration route to Europe.

One person from the West African state of Guinea had survived, the UN refugee agency's special envoy for the central Mediterranean, Vincent Cochetel, said in a tweet on Thursday.

 The boat sank off the northern city of Nouadhibou, Mauritania's second largest, according to Cochetel.

Details unclear

Other details about the event remained unclear and some accounts were conflicting.

A Mauritanian security official, who declined to be named, told AFP that the sinking did not take place in Mauritanian waters, but "far from our shores".

The official interviewed the Guinean survivor from a hospital bed in Mauritania, however, who said that he and his friends had attempted to travel from Morocco to Spain's Canary Islands.

The archipelago lies more than 100 kilometres (60 miles) from the coast of Africa at its closest point.

After the boat's engines failed, the passengers aboard the vessel reportedly leapt into the open sea.

"They're all dead, I think. I am the only survivor," the security official reported the Guinean survivor as saying.

Cochetel tweeted that international organisations "are trying to step up efforts to prevent such tragedies, but traffickers keep lying to their clients."

READ MORE: Mali Refugees: Thousand of people flee to Mauritania

'Awful consequences'

Charlie Yaxley, the UN refugee agency's spokesman for Africa, said that very little information had been confirmed, but that UN officials are "on site providing assistance".

“These are the awful consequences of immoral and unscrupulous smugglers and traffickers arranging these desperate sea journeys,” he wrote on Twitter.

Perilous route

Despite the lack of details, the incident bears strong similarities to a migrant disaster off Mauritania in December.

READ MORE: UN says 58 migrants dead as boat capsizes off Mauritania

In that instance, 62 people drowned after their makeshift vessel, also travelling to Spain's Canary Islands, hit a rock and capsized some 25 kilometres (15 miles) north of Nouadhibou.

Passengers jumped into the ocean as the craft began taking on water, and 83 people survived by swimming ashore.

Migrants have increasingly opted to risk the perilous route from West Africa to the Canaries in recent years, as authorities have clamped down on crossings from Libya to Europe.

The Atlantic route is especially dangerous as shoddy migrant vessels have to ply the ocean in order to reach the Spanish islands.

At least 170 people are known to have died trying to reach the Canary Islands in 2019, according to the IOM, against 43 the previous year.

READ MORE: Turkey's coast guard rescues 83 asylum seekers

Source: AFP