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At least 29 African migrants die when two boats sink off Tunisia

a view shows tents at a temporary camp for african migrants in tunis
A view shows tents at a temporary camp where African migrants have lived since what they say authorities urged landlords to force them from their homes, near the International Organization for Migration (IOM), in Tunis, Tunisia March 22, 2023. REUTERS/Jihed Abidellaoui

At least 29 migrants from sub-Saharan Africa died when their two boats sank off the coast of Tunisia as they tried to cross the Mediterranean to Italy, the Tunisian coast guard said on Sunday.

Separately, in the last four days, five migrant boats have sunk off the coast of the southern city of Sfax, leaving 67 missing and nine dead, after a significant increase in boats heading towards Italy.

Tunisia has taken over from Libya as a main departure point for people fleeing poverty and conflict in Africa and the Middle East in the hope of a better life in Europe.

Houssem Jebabli, a senior official in the national guard told Reuters that the Tunisian coast guard had also rescued 11 people off the coast of Mahdia, further north.

The coast guard said it had stopped about 80 boats heading for Italy in the past four days and detained more than 3,000 migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan African countries.

The latest loss of life comes in the midst of a campaign of arrests by the Tunisian authorities of undocumented sub-Saharan Africans.

According to U.N. data, at least 12,000 migrants who reached Italy this year set sail from Tunisia, compared with 1,300 in the same period of 2022.

According to statistics from the Tunisian Forum for Social and Economic Rights, Tunisia’s coast guard prevented more than 14,000 migrants setting off in boats during the first three months of this year, compared with 2,900 during the same period last year.

The Italian coast guard said on Thursday it had rescued about 750 migrants in two operations off the southern Italian coast.

Europe risks seeing a huge wave of migrants arriving on its shores from North Africa if financial stability in Tunisia is not safeguarded, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said on Friday. Meloni called on the IMF and some countries to help Tunisia quickly to avoid its collapse.

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