The number of bodies recovered from a shipwreck off Tunisia has risen to 53. The African country is both a transit country for migrants from other African countries and a source of Europe-bound migrants.
Following the capsizing of a migrant boat off the coast of Tunisia last week, at least 53 bodies have been recovered. That's according to reports by various news agencies.
The migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, died when their Italy-bound boat sank off Tunisia last week.
At least 24 women and the boat's captain, a 48-year-old Tunisian, were among the victims.
The navy and coast guards used divers and a helicopter to search for bodies, most of which were found in the same area, a spokesman for a court in Sfax told news agency AFP.
According to Sfax region's health director Ali Ayadi, some burials were held Thursday. Ayadi said that DNA samples had been taken in the hope of eventually identifying the bodies before they were laid to rest in numbered graves.
"I am deeply saddened to hear of women and children losing their life in those perilous journeys", UN refugee agency UNHCR said in an online statement published on Wednesday June 10.
Witnesses had told authorities the victims were believed to be passengers on a boat that set off for Italy a week ago with 53 people on board. An investigation has been launched to identify the organizers of the journey.
Transit and departure country
In its statement, UNHCR said that between January and May of this year, "sea departures from Tunisia to Europe have been four times more than the ones recorded in the same period last year."
Last month, at least one person drowned and six went missing after another migrant shipwreck off the Tunisian coast. Over 80 people were rescued.
Tunisia is not only a transit country for migrants from other African countries, but also a source of Europe-bound migrants: On May 26 alone, 71 migrants from the African nation made it to the Italian island of Lampedusa, despite the dangers of crossing the Mediterranean in small boats.
While Tunisians "constituted the majority until last year," UNHCR's Tunisia representative Hanan Hamdan is quoted in the statement, "a growing number of people engaging in sea crossing are from West African countries."
"We need to provide people with meaningful alternatives that can prevent extreme choices in the search for a better life," Hamdan added.
Last week, a Tunisian National Guard spokesman said that 140 migrants had been arrested for being in the country "illegally." Since April of last year, many sub-Saharan Africans arrived in Tunisia from Libya when strongman Khalifa Haftar launched a failed campaign to take the capital Tripoli.
According to Tunisia's interior ministry, 2,226 people have been intercepted trying to leave by sea over the first five months of this year. In two consecutive days in late May, the Tunisian coast guard prevented several departures of migrants to Italy.
With material from AFP, AP, dpa