Sao Paulo — A group of African migrants set sail last month on a 1 900-mile (3 000-kilometre) journey across the Atlantic to Brazil, but quickly ran into trouble and were adrift for weeks before fishermen towed them ashore, Brazilian authorities said Monday.
Two Brazilians aboard the catamaran have been arrested on suspicion they were smuggling the group, Federal Police officer Roberio Chaves said. Each of the 25 migrants — who are from Senegal, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria — paid on average 1 000 euros (R14 800) to make the journey in hopes they might build a better life in Brazil, he said.
Tens of thousands of migrants from Africa and the Middle East try to reach Europe by sea each year, but such voyages to Brazil are rare. The sea route between Latin America and West Africa is more commonly travelled in the other direction by drug smugglers, who use Guinea-Bissau and other weak states on Africa's west coast as way stations for cocaine between producer countries, like Colombia and Peru, and lucrative markets in Europe.
Saturday's landing of the migrants was a first for Brazil's northeastern state of Maranhao, Chaves said. Previously one or two migrants have arrived at a time as stowaways on merchant ships.
"This case is different because they took a boat for this purpose and in a larger number," he said.
While this case is unusual, Brazil has fairly generous immigration laws and has accepted thousands of Haitians and Venezuelans fleeing economic hardship.
The journey began sometime in April in Cape Verde, an archipelago about 370 miles (600 kilometres) off the coast of Senegal, although authorities have given different versions of what happened.
Maranhao's government said the group set out in a catamaran with a small-capacity motor, but it did not give a date of departure. First, their GPS device broke, then the overtaxed motor stopped working. The group tried to sail the boat, but that too eventually failed and they spent the next five weeks adrift.
Chaves said that the journey began April 17 and that the group brought along the wrong kind of fuel, so the motor never worked. They sailed the boat until April 26, when the mast broke, and they spent the next 41/2 weeks adrift, he said.
A fishing boat eventually found the catamaran about 70 miles (110 kilometres) off the coast of Maranhao and towed it in, Brazil's navy said in a statement. Footage that was captured by the fishermen and aired on Brazilian TV showed the small boat being pulled by a rope and without any mast in sight.
Everyone aboard was dehydrated when they came ashore, authorities have said. They were given medical care and food and are now living in a sports complex while police sort out their cases.