The Tunisian Navy announced on Tuesday that it had intercepted 93 African migrants in the Mediterranean during an attempt to cross to Europe.
On Tuesday, December 15, officials at the Tunisian Defense Ministry said that one of its navy patrol boats had intercepted "93 migrants of various African nationalities," including three Tunisians on a boat about 42 kilometers northeast of the coastal city of Sfax.
The boat was intercepted on Monday night. According to the news agency Agence France Presse (AFP), the boat included 37 women and four children.
In a statement for the defense ministry, spokesperson Mohamed Zekri said that the navy and coastguard took the migrants "to Sfax fishing port and handed them over to the national guard to carry out the relevant legal measures."
Numbers leaving Tunisia on the rise
In 2011, the numbers of migrants leaving Tunisia for Europe were high as the Jasmine revolution got underway in the country which overthrew the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
In the intervening years the numbers of those hoping to emigrate had dropped, but this year, a worsening economic situation, ballooning unemployment, and the continuing instability of neighboring Libya has meant that more and more Tunisians and sub-Saharan Africans are attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Italy and Malta through Tunisian ports.
Rising unemployment and a downturn in the economy have also played their part on the fishermen, with reports of more and more either hoping to leave themselves or willing to sell their boats to or pilot their boats for smuggling rings which can earn them more money than fishing a sea with dwindling fish stocks and falling prices for the fish they do catch.
38.4% of migrant arrivals in Italy are from Tunisia
The UN refugee agency UNHCR’s latest data from December 14 shows that this year 32,917 migrants have made it to Italy. 38.4% of them are Tunisians. That is compared with 24% of all arrivals last year.
UNHCR also notes that it is not just Tunisians leaving from Tunisian soil. In fact, 14,039 people have left from Tunisian ports this year and arrived in Italy, slightly less than those leaving from Libya 12,862 and a lot less than Algeria, 1,311.
The peaks in arrivals started gradually building from June and reached its highest numbers so far this year at the beginning of November, with 2,799 people arriving from various north African departure points in just one week.
Tunisia’s Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi visited his counterparts in France on Monday to discuss migration and terrorism. Mechichi said during his visit that “the two countries were looking into the causes of clandestine immigration,” reported AFP.
The Italian government has also been in recent talks with its Tunisian counterparts, to try and reduce the numbers attempting to leave Tunisia for Italy.
In a video interview with the French broadcaster France 24, Mechichi said that he was working on an "approach that could tackle this illegal immigration."
Mechichi also told France 24 that his country needed France to up its investments, and that Tunisia needed at least €5 billion to help tackle its deficit. Mechichi said that the economic situation in his country was "worrying."
In return, Mechichi said he would be ready to receive the Tunisians that France decided had no right to stay on their territory, because of suspected terrorist links. Several terror attacks in Europe have been linked to Tunisians or those who managed to travel through Tunisia, including one of the latest attacks at the end of October in Nice.
In the Nice attack, in which three people were attacked with a knife, the suspect charged with crimes is a 21-year-old Tunisian who had just arrived in France. According to the BBC, he had a document issued by the Italian Red Cross. A Tunisian was also responsible for the Nice terror attack four years previously.
With AFP, France 24