By Tarek Amara
TUNIS, (Reuters) – At least 34 African migrants were missing after their boat sank off Tunisia, the fifth shipwreck in two days, raising the total number of missing to 67 amid a sharp increase in boats heading towards Italy, Tunisian officials said.
The Italian coast guard said on Thursday it had rescued about 750 migrants in two separate operations off the southern Italian coastline, hours after at least five people died and 33 were missing in an attempted sea crossing from Tunisia.
Tunisian Judge Faouzi Masmoudi told Reuters that seven people had died in the boat capsizes off the coast of the city of Sfax, including babies and children.
Houssem Jebabli, an official at the National Guard, said the Coast Guard had stopped 56 boats heading for Italy in two days and detained more than 3,000 migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan African countries.
According to U.N. data, at least 12,000 migrants who have reached Italy this year set sail from Tunisia, compared with 1,300 in the same period of 2022. Previously, Libya was the main launch pad for migrants from the region.
The coastline of Sfax has become a major departure point for people fleeing poverty and conflict in Africa and the Middle East for a shot at a better life in Europe.
Last month, President Kais Saied said in comments widely criticized by rights groups and the African Union that undocumented sub-Saharan African immigration was a conspiracy aimed at changing Tunisia’s demographic make-up.
Security forces started a campaign to expel migrants living in Tunisia illegally.
Tunisia is struggling with its worst financial crisis due to stalled negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for a loan amid fears of a default in debt repayment, raising concerns in Europe, especially in neighbouring Italy.
Tunisia has been gripped by political upheavals since July 2021, when President Kais Saied seized most powers, shutting down parliament and moving to rule by decree.
Europe risks seeing a huge wave of migrants arriving on its shores from North Africa if financial stability in Tunisia is not safeguarded, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said on Friday. Meloni called on the IMF and some countries to help Tunisia quickly to avoid its collapse.