On March 26, at least 29 people were perished after two boats carrying migrants to Italy sank off the coast of Tunisia. The deaths of the migrants comes as the Tunisian government implements a crackdown on undocumented people from across sub-Saharan Africa.
According to national guard official, Houssem Jebabli, the Tunisian coast guard was able to retrieve 10 bodies from one of the boats, which sank off the coast of Mahida, and were able to save five people, al-Jazeera reported.
Over four days, five more boats sank close to the southern city of Sfax, leaving a total of 67 people missing and nine dead.
The boats were part of a widespread voyage of migrants from Tunisia, launched weeks after Tunisian president, Kais Saied, made a “racist hate speech.” In the speech, he alleged that the influx of migrants from across Africa are to blame for a crime wave, and is part of a global conspiracy to change the country’s “demographic character,” The Guardian reported.
Following the speech, many arrests of undocumented sub-Saharan Africans were made by the government. Families were reportedly chased out of their homes and even attacked with knives, The Guardian wrote. People have lost jobs due to their employers’ fears of arrest, leaving many without resources for the basic necessities.
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“You need to have two jobs to pay for the crossing,” migrant Joseph told The Guardian. “The money you earn from working is very little, sometimes just 20 dinars a day, which is not enough to live on.”
The capital of Tunis saw people sleeping under tarpaulins outside the offices of the United Nations (UN) refugee agency.
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The Forum for Social and Economic Rights (FTDES) — a Tunisian NGO — reported that the Tunisian coast guard stopped more than 14,000 refugees and migrants from fleeing on boats in the first three months of 2023, far from the 2,900 stopped during the same period last year.
Tunisia, particularly on the coast near Sfax, has become a center for migrants from across Africa who are hoping to find a new home in Europe. According to UN figures, around 12,000 people reached Italy from Tunisia this year. This is a massive jump when compared to last year’s figures which saw only 1,300 during the same period.
Officials in Italy reported that 2,500 migrants arrived on the island of Lampedusa, saying that the crowds of people are “overwhelming” them. Two other operations by the Italian coast guard on March 23 rescued around 750 people off the southern Italian coast.
Italy’s Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, warned that Europe is exposed to large waves of refugees arriving on the continent.
Tunisia is facing its worst financial crisis in history, caused by a disruption of negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a loan in the midst of concerns of a default on debt repayments.
Meloni has since called on the IMF and other countries to aid Tunisia in recovering from an economic collapse. Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani told Reuters that Rome requested the IMF to unblock a $1.9 billion loan to Tunisia, fearing destabilization and another eventual wave of migrants.