From file: A wrecked smuggling boat lying in the Gulf of Zarzis | Photo: Courtesy of Giulia Bertoluzzi, Strange Fish and Small Boss productions
From file: A wrecked smuggling boat lying in the Gulf of Zarzis | Photo: Courtesy of Giulia Bertoluzzi, Strange Fish and Small Boss productions

The Tunisian coast guard rescued around 80 migrants in two separate operations on Saturday. One body was retrieved, six people are missing. The shipwrecks happened amid a new wave of dangerous attempts to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

11 migrants were rescued Saturday morning from a boat located around one nautical mile off the Tunisian coast near the city of Sfax, after the Tunisian coast guard received an emergency call from a boat that was filling with water, news agency AP reported.

One body was retrieved by divers, and six people who had been aboard the boat are missing, the coast guard told the Tunisian news agency TAP. According to the coast guard, the "captain and chief trafficker (of the boat) fled," AP quoted.

AFP reported that 20 Tunisian nationals were aboard the boat which was reportedly headed to Italy. Moez Triaa, the spokesperson of the civil guard, is quoted as saying that two passengers had fled the scene, without providing further details.

In a separate incident, the coast guard brought 70 people to safety from another boat in distress off the Kerkennah Islands (located close to the port city of Sfax) on Saturday.

Smuggling attempts on the rise

The Tunisian coast guard says that attempts to smuggle people across the Mediterranean have increased recently. Coast guard spokesman Lt. Houssameddine Jbabli stated Saturday that Tunisia had thwarted 10 smuggling attempts in 48 hours and authorities had detained 223 people, including 94 migrants from Sub-Sahara Africa.  

The crossing attempts come as European countries have started to ease some of their strict lockdown measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Tunisia is both a transit country for migrants from elsewhere in Africa and a source of migrants trying to reach Europe to build a better life. Every year, thousands of young Tunisians risk the dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean to escape unemployment and a lack of perspectives at home. Sub-Saharan Africans who pass through Libya also attempt to embark on boat journeys from the Tunisian coast.

Drop in crossings during pandemic

In April, the number of detected illegal border crossings on Europe's main migratory routes reported by European border agency Frontex fell by 85% compared to the previous month. The number (there were around 900 reported cases) represented a record low since the agency began collecting data in 2009; the drop is attributed to the effects of coronavirus, "which have also delayed the reporting of border crossing data by national authorities", Frontex states.

On the central Mediterranean Route, recorded crossings in April fell by 29% compared to March to around 250. However, the total between January and April of this year increased three-fold compared to the same period last year. 

With AP, AFP


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