Baby among two dead as migrant boat sinks off Tunisia
At least two Tunisians including a baby died when their boat sank Saturday soon after leaving the country’s shores, the coastguard said, amid a spike in attempts to reach Europe.
Tunisia is a major gateway for migrants attempting perilous voyages across the Mediterranean in often rickety boats in the hopes of a better life.
The vessel carrying 20 Tunisians went down at 2:00 am (0100 GMT) when it was only 120 metres (395 feet) from the coast in Gabes, the North African country’s coastguard said.
“Two bodies have been recovered, one of a 20-year-old man and the other of an infant,” it said in a statement.
Five passengers were missing, the coastguard said, adding search operations were ongoing and 13 others had been rescued.
Authorities in the city of Gabes have launched an investigation to “determine the circumstances of this tragedy”, it added.
More than 1,800 people have died this year in shipwrecks in the central Mediterranean migration route, the world’s deadliest — more than twice as many as last year, according to the International Organization for Migration.
On Monday judicial officials reported the deaths of 11 migrants in a shipwreck off Sfax, with dozens more missing.
The eastern Tunisian port city of Sfax, which is located about 130 kilometres (80 miles) from the Italian island of Lampedusa, has emerged as a key migrant launchpad.
– Migrant interceptions double –
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 Africans attempting to make the crossing has spiked since Tunisian President Kais Saied alleged, in a speech on February 21, 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.
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 percent 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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