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Toll rises to 24 in latest Tunisia migrant shipwreck tragedy

By AFP - Apr 13,2023 - Last updated at Apr 13,2023

Tunisia coastguard said that it has recovered 14 bodies of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa in the Mediterranean after their boat headed for Europe sank (AFP photo)

TUNIS — Tunisia's coastguard said on Thursday 24 people had died in a shipwreck carrying sub-Saharan African migrants, a group that complains of not feeling safe since the country's president delivered an incendiary speech against them.

The coastguard announced on Wednesday that it had recovered 10 bodies after the shipwreck the day before off the North African coastal city of Sfax.

On Thursday, it said 14 more bodies of migrants were discovered, including six women, as well as the body of the boat's Tunisian captain.

Faouzi Masmoudi, the spokesman for the court of Sfax which is investigating the tragedy, said the 15 bodies had been trapped under the boat.

The spokesman for the National Guard also announced Thursday that 41 Tunisian migrants, including five women and nine children, had been "rescued" off the coast of Sousse.

Tunisia's coastguard said last week it had intercepted over 14,000 migrants trying to reach Europe from January to March, more than five times the number of those who attempted the trip in the first quarter of 2022.

Dozens of migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, have drowned off Tunisia in recent weeks, in desperate attempts to reach Europe.

Departures have spiked since President Kais Saied in February delivered a speech against them, sparking a wave of violence and evictions.

Saied accused "hordes" of illegal immigrants of causing a crime wave and being part of a "plot" to change Tunisia's demographic make-up.

Hundreds of migrants, including children and pregnant women, were made homeless and many faced violence in the days that followed.

Many have been sleeping rough outside United Nations offices in the capital Tunis.

Tunisian police used tear gas on Tuesday to disperse homeless migrants who had blocked the entrance to the UN refugee agency UNHCR to demand evacuation to “any other safe country that will accept and respect us as human”.

On Thursday, two rights groups held a press conference in Tunis to demand a safe place for them to stay.

“The urgent thing is to protect these people. They must be put in a safe place, especially the women and children,” said Zeineb Mrouki of Lawyers Without Borders.

“They need emergency accommodation, and they have a lot of health issues that need to be taken care of.”

Tunisia, whose coastline is less than 150 kilometres from the Italian island of Lampedusa, has long been a favoured spot for migrants attempting the journey.


‘Lives are at stake’ 


The UN rights chief Volker Turk voiced alarm on Thursday over the “precarious” situation of asylum seekers and migrants attempting to cross the central Mediterranean, the world’s deadliest migration route.

“We are seeing a steep increase in the number of desperate people putting their lives at grave risk,” he said in a statement.

Since 2014 over 26,000 people have died or gone missing crossing the Mediterranean, including over 20,000 along the central Mediterranean route alone, it said.

“We cannot afford to dither, and to become embroiled in yet another debate about who is responsible. Human lives are at stake,” Turk said.

Romdhane Ben Amor of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights called on authorities to allow aid organisations and citizens to help the migrants, after a volunteer who tried to deliver food was arrested.

Police are using a law which “criminalises any form of assistance to people in an irregular situation”, he said.

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