Patrol boats of the Tunisian navy | Credit: Tunisian Interior Ministry
Patrol boats of the Tunisian navy | Credit: Tunisian Interior Ministry

The Tunisian navy rescued 38 migrants from a sinking boat on Wednesday, according to the defense ministry. The migrants were reportedly trying to reach Europe.

The Tunisian defense ministry said in a statement that the boat was "on the verge of sinking" when its passengers were rescued off the island of Kerkennah, near the coastal city of Sfax in eastern Tunisia, on Wednesday (May 3).

The migrants, between 20 and 35 years old, reportedly hailed from several African countries and included six women.

According to the statement, cited by state agency TAP, the migrants said they left the island of Kerkennah on Tuesday night, hoping to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean Sea.

More departures from Tunisia

Every year, thousands of migrants risk their lives by attempting to reach Europe by crossing the ocean from Tunisia and Libya.

According to the UN migration agency IOM, 616 migrants have died in the Mediterranean Sea since the beginning of the year, the vast majority of them on the central Mediterranean route from Libya and Tunisia.

In the past week alone, the humanitarian organization Sea-Watch rescued around 450 migrants who were on their way to Europe in small wooden and inflatable boats.

In March, a shipwreck off the Tunisian coast left 39 people dead, while more than 160 others were rescued.

According to the latest UNHCR data, 10,014 migrants arrived on Italian coasts irregularly by sea between January 1 and May 2. Among those, more than 2,500 arrived via Tunisia, and 6,300 via Libya.

According to the NGO Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), the majority of those departing from Tunisia are non-nationals. In the first quarter of 2021, 53% of migrants arriving in Italy from Tunisia were foreigners, mainly nationals of sub-Saharan African countries.

Why more migrants are leaving Tunisia

Last year, the number of migrants departing from Tunisia to European coasts was the highest in ten years, and many observers believe that the number of departures in 2021 will likely be even higher.

Romdhane Ben Amor, spokesperson for FTDES, told InfoMigrants in March that "the months of January and February 2021 saw great political and social unrest" in Tunisia.

"In reaction, the (Tunisian) state has concentrated its forces to try to keep (the people) calm, especially in working-class neighborhoods. The fight against smuggling networks has therefore been abandoned. They took advantage of it," he said.

Amor also said that many migrants were desperate to leave Tunisia because of the coronavirus pandemic and its economic ramifications. COVID-19 has hit the sub-Saharan communities in Tunisia especially hard, he said. "Migrants work a lot in the informal sector, on construction sites, in cafes, restaurants ... With the pandemic, they have lost their jobs," he told InfoMigrants.

With dpa


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