50 migrants, mostly from sub-Sahara Africa, were rescued by the Tunisian navy on Monday off the coast of Tunisia after five days at sea. One of their number, a new-born baby, was found dead as the authorities arrived.
The migrants are thought to have set off from the Tunisian coast on Wednesday, January 6. Their destination, Italy. On Friday, contact was lost with those on board the boat and a search and rescue operation was launched.
On Monday, January 11, the Tunisian navy found the boat and managed to rescue 50 migrants aboard it, according to French news agency Agence France Presse (AFP). The Tunisian authorities reported that one new-born baby was found dead.
No contact since Friday
An Italian news website, Fanpage.it, reports that the majority of those on board, about 40, were from Sub-Sahara Africa and, according to differing reports, between four and six of those on board came from Tunisia.
The last contact was via the cellphone of one of the young men on board. A relative had been trying to call him since the boat had departed and after a number of attempts finally got through around lunchtime on January 8, reports Fanpage.it
Initially, the search was launched close to Lampedusa, as the authorities believed that the boat must have been nearing land if it had a signal, but it was eventually found off the Tunisian coast after relatives of those on board put pressure on the Tunisian governor of Sfax to continue with the search, according to Fanpage.it.
Tunisian search locates the boat
The Tunisian navy launched a plane on Monday and found the migrants floating near their boat which had disintegrated over the course of the journey. The boat was found about 43 kilometers off Tunisia’s eastern coast, near the town of Mahdia, which is further north and east up the Tunisian coast from Sfax.
According to AFP, the migrants ranged between "15 and 50 years old and included 11 women."
On Friday, January 9, the organization Alarm Phone retweeted a report in the Italian newspaper Mediterraneo Cronaca (News from the Mediterranean). "A boat has disappeared. The migrants set off from Sfax, feared drowned. Searches close to Lampedusa have found nothing. The boat left three days ago but air and sea searches have turned up nothing so far."
The newspaper reported that they believed the alarm had been raised by a relative of one of the Tunisians on board the boat after they failed to reach Lampedusa in the time expected. The relative, reported the newspaper, had already reached Lampedusa without any problems.
According to Mediterraneo Cronaca, an aircraft and several fast search-and-rescue boats were sent out from Lampedusa by the Italian coastguard to search for the missing boat.
However, the Italian search concentrated on Italian waters to the west of the island which was the projected route of the boat. Mediterraneo Cronaca reported that the waters at the time, as would be expected in the winter were months were "icy cold" and that the waves were about 1.2 meters high. They estimated that most people would only survive "a few minutes" in the sea before they died of hypothermia because of the cold.
Eventually, pressure from other relatives on the Tunisian authorities prompted a second search on Monday, when the remains of the boat and the survivors were eventually found. Contrary to Italian suppositions, it appears most of the survivors had been in the water for some time when they were rescued, although it is not clear for how long.
According to the Sicilian newspaper Il Giornale di Sicilia, the baby though did indeed die "of cold."
Boats from Tunisia increased
The numbers of boats setting off from Tunisia in the last year have dramatically increased. The majority of them carry Tunisian nationals in search of work and a better life in Italy, as the economic situation in Tunisia worsens.
As the controls have tightened for those attempting to depart Libya and Algeria, there are increasing numbers of sub-Saharan Africans too who attempt to make the crossing.
According to data from the UN refugee agency UNHCR, last updated on January 11, in 2021 Italy has so far registered 325 arrivals by sea. Last year, in 2020, it recorded 34,154 with 708 officially regarded as "dead or missing." Organizations like the UN migration agency IOM say that the real numbers of those who have died attempting to make the crossing are probably much higher.
Tunisian nationals accounted for about 38% of all arrivals in Italy in the last year, since January 1 2020. Bangladeshi nationals were the second most populous group of arrivals, accounting for about 12.7% in 2020.