Tunisian authorities confirmed on Monday that they had “intercepted or rescued” 657 migrants at sea over the weekend. The migrants in question had been trying to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean.
The 657 migrants were stopped from crossing the Mediterranean or rescued after their boats got into trouble in 46 separate incidents between Friday, August 12 and Monday, August 15, as was reported in the Abu Dhabi-based English language news portal The National. Last week, over 250 were stopped in a similar manner.
The closest crossing between the Tunisian coast and the Italian island of Lampedusa is about 140 kilometers. Tunisians account for the greatest number of migrants arriving in Italy so far this year, according to Italian government statistics.
Tunisia is also a transit country, with more and more sub-Saharan African migrants as well as migrants from countries such as Egypt, Bangladesh and from the Middle East arriving in Tunisia with the hope of finding a boat to depart to Europe.
Ten different boats prevented from crossing
The National, quoting Tunisia's National Guard, said that the Tunisian coast guard had stopped 10 different boats from crossing on Sunday night into Monday, intercepting 156 would-be migrants. Two thirds of them came from sub-Saharan African countries, reported the National, and the rest were from Tunisia.
Tunisian defense ministry spokesperson Mohamed Zekri told the French news agency Agence France Presse (AFP) that in addition, the Tunisian authorities had helped rescue 42 Egyptians who had originally set sail from Libya, and got into trouble off the Kerkennah islands off central Tunisia. According to AFP, their boat sank, and they took refuge on a nearby offshore oil platforms.
A similar incident occurred the previous weekend in a similar position. In that incident, Tunisian authorities think at least 10 Tunisian migrants drowned while 20 were saved.
15 members of the same family try to leave central Tunisia
On Friday night, AFP reported that 15 members of the same family were stopped by Tunisian authorities from heading out from central Tunisia in a boat they had hired. AFP said the family had hoped to set off from Hammamet, and had paid a reported 50,000 dinars -- or about €15,900 -- for the boat, two motors and life jackets.
As the political and economic situation in Tunisia continues to worsen, more and more people appear to hope to migrate to seek better opportunities in Europe. With unemployment rising, in particular among young people, many feel they have no other option.
Arrivals in Italy
According to Italian government statistics, which last were updated on August 12, more than 9,000 Tunisians have arrived in Italy since the beginning of the year. Previously, it was fairly common to send many of those arriving from Tunisia for a period of quarantine and then fly them back to Tunisia, since Italy and Tunisia have a long-standing agreement for repatriation, and Tunisia is generally declared to be a 'safe' country.
However, some human rights groups working in both Italy and Tunisia have pointed out that many of the police force remained the same under the new regime as they were during the autocratic rule prior to the so-called Jasmine revolution in 2011.
Young people who were returned from Italy alleged in a documentary shown on Italy's state broadcaster Rai in December 2021 that they were beaten as they arrived back in Tunisia. They also admitted that the situation was so dire for them in Tunisia that they would keep trying to make it to Italy to find a job and seek a better future.