At least 25 people from sub-Saharan Africa drown off Tunisia

This year’s first quarter was the deadliest for refugees trying to cross the central Mediterranean since 2017, the UN says.

Refugees from sub-Saharan Africa sit in a makeshift boat intercepted by Tunisian authorities about 50 nautical miles in the Mediterranean sea off the coast of the city of Sfax.
Refugees from sub-Saharan Africa sit in a makeshift boat intercepted by Tunisian authorities in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of the city of Sfax [File: Fethi Belaid/AFP]

At least 25 people from sub-Saharan African countries have drowned off Tunisia when their boat sank as they tried to reach Europe, the Tunisian coastguard says.

More people are reported missing after Tuesday’s shipwreck off the city of Sfax, and 76 people have been rescued.

The coastguard had initially said on Wednesday that 10 bodies had been found, but security officials told Reuters on Thursday that had risen to 25.

Coastguard spokesman Houssem Jebabli said all the victims hailed from sub-Saharan African countries. The coastguard also said it had stopped another sea crossing from the northern coast.

The past month has seen a sharp increase in refugee and migrant boats trying to reach the Italian coast from Tunisia. The rise has also led to a spike in drownings because the vessels used for the Mediterranean crossings are often rickety, overcrowded and have unreliable engines. In March, at least 52 people died and 70 went missing in similar disasters.

The Italian island of Lampedusa lies about 150km (90 miles) from the Tunisian coast.

January to March was the deadliest first quarter for central Mediterranean refugees and migrants since 2017, the United Nations said on Wednesday. It confirmed 441 deaths.

The UN’s International Organization for Migration said delays in government search and rescue operations played a part in deaths in several accidents during the perilous sea crossing from North Africa.

The agency said the 441 known deaths in the first three months of the year was likely an undercount of the true number.

Tuesday’s shipwreck was the latest tragedy after boats had capsized on Friday and Saturday off Tunisia, killing 27 people.

The number of such voyages has risen after Tunisian President Kais Saied in February ordered officials to take “urgent measures” to tackle “irregular immigration”.

Saied claimed, without evidence, that a “criminal plot” was under way to change Tunisia’s demographic makeup, sparking a wave of evictions and violence against Black refugees.

Tunisian police on Tuesday used tear gas to disperse homeless refugees who had been protesting outside the office of the UN Refugee Agency to demand their return to their home countries.

The National Guard said this month that more than 14,000 people, most of them from sub-Saharan Africa, were intercepted or rescued in the first three months of the year while trying to cross to Europe, five times more than figures recorded in the same period last year.

The sharp increase is partly due to Tunisia taking over from Libya as the main departure point for people fleeing poverty and conflict in Africa and the Middle East in the hopes of a better life in Europe.

Crackdowns on human trafficking in Libya in recents months have made Tunisia a more accessible option.

Source: News Agencies