The bodies of more than 100 people have been recovered off the coasts of Libya and Tunisia following several shipwrecks. At the same time, Tunisian authorities have been accused of stealing engines from migrant boats and leaving the occupants stranded at sea.
Tunisian authorities said Monday (April 24) that five people had drowned in two separate shipwrecks near the coastal city of Sfax and that 31 bodies in a state of decomposition had been washed up by the sea.
The number of migrants known to have died in multiple shipwrecks off the Tunisian coast in recent weeks has now reached at least 70.
Faouzi Masmoudi, an official in Sfax, told Reuters: "The morgues in Sfax hospitals are suffering from severe pressure because of the high number of corpses of migrants," Masmoudi said. "It’s a threat to public health."
He added that at least 47 people were rescued from the boats that sank on Monday.
Tunisia is the main country of departure in Africa for boats carrying migrants hoping to reach Europe. Many who attempt the crossing are picked up at sea by Tunisian authorities.
The country’s national guard said this month that 14,000 migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, were intercepted or rescued in the first three months of the year, five times more than were recorded in the same period last year.
Coast guard accused over shipwrecks
According to Alarm Phone, a hotline used by migrants who get into trouble at sea, Tunisian authorities have been complicit in the recent sinking of migrant boats.
They say members of the coast guard have been systematically removing the engines of boats and abandoning the migrants at sea.
The claims are supported by the testimonies of migrants like Kalilou*, a 28-year-old Ivorian who has made several attempts to cross the Mediterranean.
"When the coast guards arrive, they take the cans of gasoline and ask the captain to remove the engine. Then they leave, letting the boat drift," Kililou recently told InfoMigrants (French). He said that usually the Tunisian authorities return to the area a few hours later to take the migrants back to port.
As well as stealing engines, Kalilou told InfoMigrants that the coast guards carry out dangerous maneuvers at sea, putting the migrant boats in danger. "When they stir up the water, people panic and the boat flips over. They can rescue some people but they can’t get everyone out."
Shipwreck off Libya claims 34 lives
A large number of deceased migrants have also been found off the coast of Libya. The Libyan Red Crescent said Monday that 34 bodies had been recovered following a shipwreck off Sabratha last week.
A Libyan official told AFP that the number of victims could rise. "In this kind of incident, the chances of survival are slim … especially since no call for help was made," the source added.
The Red Crescent had reported finding six bodies last Wednesday when the boat reportedly sank. Another 17 bodies were recovered on Sunday.
Footage and photos posted on social media, such as this tweet from Libya's National Commission of Human Rights, showed Red Crescent volunteers carrying bodies in black bags to ambulances.
On Wednesday, April 19, the day on which the shipwreck happened, Alarm Phone said it received a distress call from an inflatable boat that was sinking off Libya’s coast and carrying around 100 passengers. On Twitter, the group said it had tried unsuccessfully to contact the Libyan coast guard, and had lost contact with the boat.
With Reuters, AFP