Dozens missing in latest shipwreck off Tunisia | Refugees News

At least 34 refugees are missing after their boat sank off Tunisia, bringing the total number of missing to 67 as the number of ships bound for Italy surges.

At least 34 refugees are missing after their boat sank off Tunisia, officials said, the latest in a string of tragedies this month.

The boat started near Sfax on Thursday and attempted to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Italy, Fawzi El Masmoudi, a court spokesman in the port city, said on Friday.

The incident brought the total number of missing to 67 as the number of boats bound for Italy surges.

The Italian Coast Guard said on Thursday it had rescued around 750 refugees in two operations off southern Italy, hours after at least five people died and 33 were missing in an attempted sea crossing from Tunisia.

Houssem Jebabli, an official with the Tunisian National Guard, said the Coast Guard stopped 56 boats en route to Italy in two days and detained more than 3,000 refugees, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa.

At least 12,000 refugees who reached Italy sailed from Tunisia this year, according to the UN, compared with 1,300 in the same period of 2022. Previously, Libya was the main launching pad for refugees from the region.

The Sfax coast has become an important departure point for people fleeing poverty and conflict in Africa and the Middle East to seek a better life in Europe.

Sub-Saharan Africans living in Tunisia have lived in fear ever since President Kais Saied delivered an inflammatory speech last month in which he accused them of posing a demographic threat and causing a crime wave.

In the days after Saied’s remarks, which human rights groups criticized as “racist hate speech,” security forces launched a campaign to expel undocumented people living in Tunisia.

Refugees also reported an increase in racist attacks, and many were evicted from their homes by landlords, fearing heavy fines or jail time for their accommodation.

Some informal workers 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 elsewhere in Africa, accounting for 0.2 percent of the population.

Tunisia is struggling with a financial crisis and deadlocked negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a loan. Fears of default are growing and a concern in Europe, particularly in neighboring Italy.

On Friday, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said Europe risks a huge wave of refugees from North Africa if financial stability in Tunisia is not guaranteed.

Meloni called on the IMF to help the North African country avoid economic collapse.

Bailout talks with the IMF have stalled for months, with the United States among countries demanding sweeping reforms from Saied to free the money.

Political upheaval has swept Tunisia since July 2021, when Saied usurped most government powers, dissolved parliament and ruled by decree.

“Perhaps not everyone is aware of the need to maintain financial stability in a country that is facing serious financial problems,” Meloni told reporters after a summit of European Union leaders in Brussels.

Meloni echoed comments earlier in the week from Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, who warned Tunisia of economic collapse that could trigger a new flow of refugees to Europe, fearing Tunis has since been sacked.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned this week that Tunisia urgently needs to secure a bailout deal with the IMF.

As the number of crossings in the central Mediterranean surges, Italy’s right-wing government has approved new measures to fine charities that rescue asylum seekers at sea and seize their ships when they flout new rules and potentially endanger the lives of thousands.

Since Meloni took office in October, the Italian government has targeted the activities of sea rescue organizations, accusing them of facilitating the work of human traffickers. The welfare organizations reject the allegations.


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