At least 29 people from sub-Saharan Africa have died while trying to reach Italy after two boats carrying them across the Mediterranean sank off the coast of Tunisia.
The deaths, which occurred early on Sunday, are the latest tragedies involving people departing from the north African country, where the authorities have launched a crackdown on undocumented people from sub-Saharan Africa.
Over the past four days, five boats have sunk off the southern city of Sfax, leaving 67 people missing and nine dead, amid a significant increase in vessels heading towards Italy.
The Tunisian coastguard rescued 11 people further north off the coast of Mahdia on Sunday. The coastguard said it had stopped about 80 boats heading for Italy in the past four days and detained more than 3,000 people, mostly from sub-Saharan African countries.
The coast near Sfax has become a key departure point for people fleeing poverty and conflict in Africa and the Middle East in the hope of a better life in Europe. According to UN data, at least 12,000 people who reached Italy this year set sail from Tunisia, compared with 1,300 in the same period of 2022. Previously, Libya was the main departure point.
According to the Forum for Social and Economic Rights (FTDES), a Tunisian NGO, the coastguard prevented more than 14,000 people from setting off in boats during the first three months of this year, compared with 2,900 during the same period last year. The Italian coastguard said on Thursday it had rescued about 750 people in two operations off the southern Italian coast.
On Friday, Italy’s prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, said there would be a large number of people arriving in Europe from north Africa if Tunisia’s financial stability was not safeguarded. She called on the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and some countries to take swift action to avoid the country’s economic collapse.
Last month, Tunisia’s president, Kais Saied, made a controversial speech in which he claimed that irregular migration from other parts of Africa was part of an international conspiracy to change Tunisia’s demographic character. His comments were strongly criticised by other African countries and has led some to seek to repatriate their citizens.
Tunisia’s economy is under pressure and US secretary of state Antony Blinken has said it urgently needs to reach a bailout agreement with the IMF. – Guardian/Reuters