By Tarek Amara
TUNIS, (Reuters) – At least five African migrants died and another 28 were missing after a boat sank off Tunisia, as they tried to cross the Mediterranean to Italy, an official of a local rights group said.
Romadan Ben Omar, the official in the Tunisian Forum for Social and Economic Rights, said that coast guard rescued five migrants who had been on board the boat that sank off the coast of the southern city of Sfax, and that they were in a bad psychological condition.
Tunisian authorities were not immediately available for comment.
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.
The incident comes amid a significant increase of migration boats from the Tunisian coast toward Italy and in the midst of a campaign by Tunisian authorities of arrests targeting undocumented sub-Saharan African immigration.
According to unofficial United Nations data, 12,000 of those 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.
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.
He ordered security forces to expel any migrants living in Tunisia illegally.
The order had led people to flee the country, even if they previously had no intention of making the dangerous crossing to Europe, a senior official with the United Nations said.
Tunisia is struggling with its worst financial crisis due to the disruption of negotiations with International Monetary Fund for a loan amid fears of default in debt repayment, raising concerns from Europe, especially neighboring Italy.
Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani previously told Reuters that Rome wanted the IMF to unblock the $1.9 billion loan to Tunisia, fearful that without the cash the country would be destabilised, unleashing a new wave of migrants toward Europe.