At least 20 people are missing after a boat attempting to cross the Mediterranean sank off Tunisia, according to an official, amid a sharp rise in the number of refugees trying to reach Europe by boat from the North African country.
The coastguard rescued 17 others, two of whom are in critical condition, after the boat sank off the coast of Sfax, Sfax court judge Faouzi Masmousdi said on Saturday.
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In recent weeks, dozens have gone missing or died in several drowning accidents off the Tunisian coast.
Tunisia has replaced Libya as a main departure point for people fleeing poverty and conflict in Africa and the Middle East in the hope of a better life in Europe.
Tunisia’s National Guard said on Friday that more than 14,000 refugees, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, were intercepted or rescued in the first three months of the year while trying to cross into Europe, five times more than figures recorded in the same period last year.
“Coast guard patrols prevent 501 clandestine attempts to cross the maritime border and rescued 14,406 [refugees] including 13,138 from sub-Saharan African countries,” between January 1 and March 31, it said in a statement.
The vast majority of interceptions took place off the coast of Sfax and Mahdia provinces, whose shores lie just 150km (90 miles) from the Italian island of Lampedusa.
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said on Friday that Europe risked seeing a huge wave of refugees arriving on its shores from North Africa if financial stability in Tunisia were not safeguarded.
Meloni called on the International Money Fund and other countries to help Tunisia quickly to avoid its collapse.
Tunisian Foreign Minister Nabil Ammar said last week that the country needed funding and equipment to better protect its borders. Tunisia had received equipment from Italy in the past years, but Ammar said it was outdated and not sufficient.