Tunisian coast guard recovers 29 bodies after migrant vessels capsize

African migrants asking to be evacuated from the country, outside the International Organisation for Migration in Tunisia, on March 22. PHOTO: REUTERS

TUNIS - Tunisia’s coast guard said on Sunday that the bodies of 29 migrants from sub-Saharan African countries had been recovered after three vessels capsized.

It also “rescued 11 illegal migrants of various African nationalities after their boats sank” off the central eastern coast, it said in a statement, citing three separate sinkings.

In one incident, a Tunisian fishing trawler recovered 19 bodies 58km off the coast after their boat capsized.

A coast guard patrol off the coastal city of Mahdiya also recovered eight bodies and “rescued” 11 other migrants after their boat sank as it headed towards Italy.

Fishing trawlers in Sfax, meanwhile, recovered two other bodies.

A string of shipwrecks have left dozens of migrants dead and others missing since President Kais Saied made an incendiary speech in February, accusing sub-Saharan Africans of representing a demographic threat and causing a crime wave in Tunisia.

Black migrants in the country have faced a spike in violence, and hundreds have been living on the streets for weeks in increasingly desperate conditions.

People fleeing poverty and violence in Sudan’s Darfur region, West Africa and other parts of the continent have for years used Tunisia as a springboard for often perilous attempts to reach safety and better lives in Europe.

The Italian island of Lampedusa is just 150km off the Tunisian coast, but Rome has pressured Tunisian authorities to rein in the flow of people, and has helped beef up the coast guard, which rights groups accuse of violence.

Italy’s hard-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni warned last Friday that Tunisia’s “serious financial problems” risked sparking a “migratory wave” towards Europe.

She also confirmed plans for a mission to the North African country involving the Italian and French foreign ministers.

Ms Meloni echoed comments earlier in the week by Mr Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, who warned that Tunisia risks economic collapse that could trigger a new flow of migrants to Europe – fears Tunis has since dismissed. AFP

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.