At least 34 refugees are missing after their boat sank off the coast of Tunisia, bringing the total missing to 67 as the number of ships sailing to Italy surges.
At least 34 refugees are missing after their boat sank off the coast of Tunisia, officials said, the latest in a string of tragedies this month.
The boat had departed from near Sfax on Thursday and was attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Italy, Fawzi El Masmoudi, a spokesman for the port city’s court, said on Friday.
The incident brought the total number of missing to 67, as the number of boats bound for Italy increases sharply.
Italy’s coastguard said on Thursday it had rescued about 750 refugees in two operations off the coast of southern Italy, hours after at least five people died and 33 went missing in an attempted sea crossing from Tunisia.
Houssem Jebabli, a Tunisian National Guard official, said that in two days the coastguard had stopped 56 boats heading for Italy and detained more than 3,000 refugees, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa.
According to UN data, at least 12,000 refugees who have reached Italy this year have left Tunisia, compared to 1,300 in the same period of 2022. Previously, Libya was the main launching pad for refugees from the region.
The Sfax coastline has become an important starting point for people fleeing poverty and conflict in Africa and the Middle East and seeking a better life in Europe.
Sub-Saharan Africans living in Tunisia have been living in fear since an inflammatory speech by President Kais Saied last month, in which he accused them of representing a demographic threat and sparking a crime wave.
In the days following Saied’s remarks, which were criticized by human rights groups as “racist hate speech”, security forces launched a campaign to deport undocumented migrants living in Tunisia.
Refugees also reported an increase in racist attacks and many were evicted from their homes by landlords for fear of heavy fines or prison sentences for housing.
Some who worked informally in construction and other industries also lost their jobs.
The North African country’s 12 million inhabitants are home to an estimated 21,000 refugees from other parts of Africa, representing 0.2 percent of the population.
Tunisia is struggling with a financial crisis and is stuck in negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) about a loan. Debt default fears are on the rise, causing concern in Europe, especially in neighboring Italy.
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said on Friday that Europe risks seeing a huge wave of refugees from North Africa if financial stability in Tunisia is not safeguarded.
Meloni called on the IMF to help the North African country avoid economic collapse.
IMF bailout talks have stalled for months, with the United States among countries demanding sweeping reforms from Saied to free up the cash.
Tunisia has been gripped by political upheavals since July 2021, when Saied seized most of the government’s power, closed parliament and began to rule by decree.
“Maybe not everyone is aware of the need to maintain financial stability in a country that is experiencing serious financial problems,” Meloni told reporters after a summit of European Union leaders in Brussels.
Meloni repeated comments earlier this week from Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, who warned Tunisia risks an economic collapse that could trigger a new wave of refugees to Europe, fears Tunis has since fired.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned this week that Tunisia urgently needs to sign a bailout deal with the IMF.
As crossings in the central Mediterranean rise, Italy’s right-wing government has approved new measures to fine charities that rescue asylum seekers at sea and seize their ships if they break new rules, potentially putting thousands of lives at risk.
Since Meloni took office in October, the Italian government has targeted the activities of sea rescue charities, accusing them of facilitating the work of people smugglers. The charities deny the allegations.