At least 34 refugees are missing after their boat sank off Tunisia, officials have said, the latest in a string of tragedies this month.
The boat had set off Thursday from near Sfax and was trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach Italy, Fawzi El Masmoudi, a court spokesman in the port city, said on Friday.
The incident raised the total number of missing to 67 as the number of boats heading towards Italy sharply increases.
The Italian coastguard said on Thursday that it had rescued about 750 refugees in two operations off southern Italy, hours after at least five people died and 33 went missing in an attempted sea crossing from Tunisia.
Houssem Jebabli, a Tunisian national guard official, said the coastguard had stopped 56 boats heading for Italy in two days and detained more than 3,000 refugees, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa.
According to UN data, at least 12,000 refugees 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 refugees 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 and seeking a better life in Europe.
Sub-Saharan Africans residing in Tunisia have been living in fear since an incendiary speech by President Kais Saied last month in which he accused them of representing a demographic threat and causing a crime wave.
In the days after Saied’s comments, which human rights groups criticised as “racist hate speech”, security forces started a campaign to expel undocumented people living in Tunisia.
Refugees also reported an upsurge in racist attacks and many were evicted from their homes by landlords fearing large fines or prison sentences for housing them.
Some working informally in construction and other sectors also lost their jobs.
The North African country’s population of 12 million is home to an estimated 21,000 refugees from other parts of Africa, representing 0.2 percent of the population.
Tunisia is struggling with a financial crisis and stalled negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a loan. Fears of a debt default are increasing, raising concerns in Europe, especially in neighbouring Italy.
On Friday, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said Europe risks seeing a huge wave of refugees from North Africa if financial stability in Tunisia is not safeguarded.
Meloni called on the IMF to help the North African country avoid economic collapse.
Bailout talks with the IMF have been stalled for months with the United States among the countries demanding far-reaching reforms from Saied to free up the cash.
Tunisia has been gripped by political upheavals since July 2021 when Saied seized most of the government’s powers, shutting down parliament and moving to rule by decree.
“Maybe not everyone is aware of the need to preserve the financial stability in a country which has severe financial problems,” Meloni told reporters after a summit of European Union leaders in Brussels.
Meloni echoed comments earlier in the week by Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, who warned Tunisia risks economic collapse that could trigger a new flow of refugees to Europe, fears Tunis has since dismissed.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned this week that Tunisia urgently needs to reach a bailout deal with the IMF.
While the number of crossings in the central Mediterranean rises, Italy’s right-wing government has approved new measures to fine charities who rescue asylum seekers at sea and impound their ships if they break new rules, possibly putting thousands of people’s lives in danger.
Since Meloni took office in October, the Italian government has targeted the activities of sea rescue charities, accusing them of facilitating the work of people traffickers. The charities dismiss the allegations.
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