Tunisian coast guard steps up migrant interception effort after boat tragedy

The EU, Italy and Tunisia have signed agreements trying to curb the number of migrants crossing through the country heading to Europe

A member of Tunisia's national guard stops a fishing boat in the sea bordering Tunisia and Libya as they check vessels for illegal migrants trying to reach Europe. AFP Photo
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At least 23 migrants remain missing off the coast of Tunisia, two weeks after their vessel capsized earlier this month, Tunisia’s coastguard reported on Saturday, as protests over migration through the north African country erupted in Jebiniana.

The coastguard said four bodies had been found, but it was unclear what the final toll would be and there was no word on the number of migrants on the sunken vessel.

Tragedies involving migrants drowning at sea – often fleeing conflicts and climate crises in sub-Saharan Africa, are common in the Mediterranean, with the Tunisian Forum for Social and Economic Rights (FTDES) estimating that more than 1,300 perished in failed crossings after transiting Tunisia last year. Increasingly, many Tunisians are trying to flee economic hardship at home.

The overall toll of those passing through North Africa could be considerably higher, but Tunisia has become a key transit point for those seeking a better life in Europe.

That has spurred the European Union, and particularly Italy and its right wing government of Giorgia Meloni, to do more to pressure and assist Tunisia to stem the migrant flows.

In exchange, Tunisia will receive generous aid packages as President Kais Saied grapples with a host of economic challenges including high inflation of more than 7 per cent and high national debt.

Tunisia’s coastguard says it has stepped up efforts to stop the Mediterranean crossings, as well as saving those on stricken vessels, which are often not seaworthy and dangerously overloaded with passengers.

Last week, authorities reported a 22.5 per cent increase in the number of migrant interceptions, with more than 21,000 people prevented from leaving Tunisia or rescued during the first four months of 2024.

According to the National Guard, 21,545 people were intercepted between January 1 and April 30, compared with 17,576 over the same period last year.

Since January 1, the bodies of 291 shipwreck victims have been recovered compared with 572 last year in almost triple the number of operations (1,967 this year against 686 in 2023).

Last year, Tunisians accounted for the second largest number of irregular migrant arrivals in Italy, at 17,304 people, second only to Guineans at 18,204, Italian government figures show.

The crisis has also stirred nationalist and right wing sentiment at home. Tunisians marched through the streets of Jebeniana on Saturday to protest the presence of sub-Saharan migrants who have found themselves stranded as the country ramps up border patrol efforts.

Anti-migrant anger is mounting in impoverished towns like Jebeniana along the Tunisian coastline that have emerged as a launch pad for thousands of people hoping to reach Europe by boat.

Chanting slogans to oppose settling migrants in Tunisia, protesters demanded the government act to assist agricultural communities dealing with thousands of migrants living in tarpaulin encampments among their olive groves.

“You brought them here and it's your responsibility to send them back to their home countries,” Moamen Salemi, a 63-year old retiree from nearby El Amra, said at the protest. “There is a shortage of food throughout the city of El Amra, including sugar, flour, bread and many other items.”

Law enforcement has expanded its presence in the two agricultural towns, where roughly 83,000 Tunisians live among a growing number of migrants from around the world.

Updated: May 19, 2024, 12:03 PM