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Five dead, seven missing as migrant boat sinks off Tunisia

By AFP - Aug 14,2023 - Last updated at Aug 14,2023

Migrants of African origin trying to flee to Europe are crammed on board of a small boat, as Tunisian coast guards prepare to transfer them onto their vessel, at sea between Tunisia and Italy, on Thursday (AFP photo)

TUNIS — At least five people died on Monday and seven others are missing after their Europe-bound migrant boat sank off Tunisia’s coast, a judicial official in the city of Sfax told AFP.

Sfax has emerged as a major hub for migrants from Tunisia and other parts of Africa attempting perilous voyages across the Mediterranean, often in rickety boats in hopes of a better life.

Court spokesman Faouzi Masmoudi said “35 people, most of them Tunisians” including women and children were on board the boat that went down “shortly after departing from the coast of Sidi Mansour” near Sfax.

The deaths include at least one child and two women, Masmoudi said, adding that “23 people have been rescued”.

The boat sank “less than an hour after departure”, according to the spokesman.

Last week judicial officials reported the deaths of at least 11 migrants in a shipwreck off Sfax, as the North African country sees a spike in attempted sea crossings.

The eastern Tunisian port city is located about 130 kilometres from the Italian island of Lampedusa.

The court has launched an investigation into the latest shipwreck, Masmoudi said, as search operations were under way.

More than 1,800 people have died this year in shipwrecks on the central Mediterranean migration route, the world’s deadliest — more than twice as many as last year, according to the International Organisation for Migration.


Growing numbers 


The Tunisian coastguard says it intercepted 34,290 migrants in the six months to June 20, most from sub-Saharan African countries, compared with 9,217 over the same period in 2022.

The number of people from sub-Saharan African countries trying to make the crossing has spiked since Tunisian President Kais Saied alleged in a February speech that “hordes” of irregular migrants were causing crime and posing a demographic threat to the mainly Arab country.

Many have also fled since hundreds of migrants were arrested or chased into the desert after the deadly stabbing of a Tunisian man in a brawl with migrants in Sfax on July 3.

Tunisians have opted for the sea journeys in growing numbers as the country faces a grinding economic crisis and severe shortages of basic staples.

On Saturday, at least two Tunisians including a baby died when their boat sank soon after leaving the coast in Gabes, south of Sfax, the coastguard said.

Italy says about 95,000 migrants have arrived on its shores since the start of the year — more than double the number for the same period in 2022.

Tunisians are the fourth-largest group among them, behind migrants from the Ivory Coast, Guinea and Egypt.

Mouhamed Borhen Chamtouri, a commander of the coastguard in Sfax, told AFP on Thursday that this month the force had intercepted about 3,000 migrants in just 10 days, 90 per cent of whom were from other parts of Africa.

In July, the European Union signed an agreement with Tunisia that provides for 105 million euros ($115 million) in direct European aid to prevent the departure of migrant boats and combat smugglers.


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