“The situation right now is very tragic, especially this week,” said Romdhane Ben Amor, an official at the Forum for Social and Economic Rights (FTDES), which is based in the Tunisian capital. He said the true count of those dead and missing was likely higher as “officials are not being transparent enough” about the cases of capsizing boats.
The Tunisian Coast Guard in a statement Sunday said it had recovered eight bodies and rescued 11 other Africans trying to illegally cross the Mediterranean. In another incident, officials recovered 19 bodies about 36 miles off the Tunisian coast after a fishing boat sank. The Coast Guard said it recovered two other bodies from a capsized fishing boat near the southern coastal city of Sfax.
Separately from Sunday’s incidents, five boats carrying migrants and asylum seekers headed to Italy sank off the coast of Sfax in recent days, leaving at least nine dead and 67 missing, according to Reuters, citing Tunisian officials. Between March 22 and 24, the Tunisian Coast Guard said it stopped 79 illegal maritime crossings and arrested nearly 3,000 migrants, almost all from African countries.
Thousands more have made it to Italy. On Saturday, Italy’s ANSA news agency reported that in the previous 24-hours 2,000 refugees and asylum seekers arrived at the refugee reception center on the Italian island of Lampedusa. The center has an official capacity of less than 400 people, according to ANSA.
The flow of mainly sub-Saharan and West Africans up through North Africa and onward by sea to Europe, where they hope to find safety from conflict and poverty, has been ongoing for years. Libya, Tunisia’s southeastern neighbor, was previously the main launching point. But after crackdowns by the Libyan and European governments, migration patterns began shifting over to Tunisia, which is now the leading transit point.
These changes in migrant flows have coincided with Tunisia’s own deepening economic crises and growing authoritarian rule under Saied, who has used xenophobic and anti-Black rhetoric to help justify his consolidation of power since his election in 2019 and suspension of parliament two years later.
The latest escalation came in late February, when Saied blamed “hordes of irregular migrants” for violence and crime in Tunisia. The Tunisian president also echoed the white-nationalist “great replacement” conspiracy theory and accused Africans in the country of being part of a conspiratorial plot to make Tunisia “only an African country that has no affiliation to Arab and Islamic nations.”
Saied made these remarks Feb. 21 to his national security advisers. His critics — who the president is also cracking down on — dismissed the president’s comments as a xenophobic ploy to distract the country from mounting economic and political troubles.
In the weeks that followed, rights groups documented a rise in anti-Black violence and xenophobic incidents as the Tunisian government accelerated roundups of African migrants without residency papers. Racist speech snowballed online. Africans reported being hit with stones and having properties vandalized. Landlords and employees kicked Africans out of houses and jobs over worries the government could target them for assisting undocumented people.
The Tunisian president’s racist remarks only increased the desire of Africans to leave Tunisia — and the opportunities for smugglers with unsafe boats to exploit them, said Ben Amor.
According to the United Nation’s latest available numbers, as of March 19 more than 12,000 of about 20,000 migrants and asylum seekers who reached Italy by sea in 2023 set sail from Tunisia — up from around 1,300 who left Tunisia for Italy during that same period in 2022.
Just in January of this year, the number of migrants intercepted off the Tunisian coast — 2,322 people — increased by about 101 percent from the same month in 2022, according to FTDES. The Tunisian NGO said 28 people were confirmed dead or missing off the Tunisian coast in January, compared to 65 during all of 2022.
The majority of Africans fleeing Tunisia for Europe come from Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Mali, Sudan, Chad, Niger, Nigeria and Burkina Faso, Ben Amor said.
The recent influx of African migrants and asylum seekers has raised alarm in Italy, whose prime minister on Friday warned that ongoing financial instability in Tunisia risked “unleashing an unprecedented wave of migration” to Europe, Reuters reported.
Tunisia had been in bailout talks with the International Monetary Fund — but negotiations have been stalled for months, in part because of U.S. demands that Saied implement far-reaching reforms in exchange for the financial lifeline.
In the last major migration wave into Europe, more than 1 million migrants and asylum seekers arrived on the continent in 2015. The majority came from Syria, and arrived in Italy and Greece on dangerous, and often deadly, boats from Turkey.
After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, 2022, millions of Ukrainians sought safety elsewhere in Europe. As of March, some 4 million Ukrainians have been granted temporary protection to remain in the European Union, as Ukraine is not a E.U. member.
*This story has not been edited by The Infallible staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.