Skip to main content

Tunisia: Dozens dead after boats sink off the coast

At least two boats sank within hours of each other leaving at least 29 dead
In recent years Tunisia has become a launch pad for migrants looking to leave and head to Europe (AFP)

At least 29 people from sub-Saharan Africa died off the Tunisian coast after their two boats sank as they tried to cross the Mediterranean sea to Italy on Sunday.

The Tunisian coastguard, which was first at the scene, said it had managed to rescue 11 people.

In the last week the coastguard said it had stopped about 80 boats heading for Italy and detained more than 3,000 people, mostly from sub-Saharan African countries.

In recent years, Tunisia has become a launch pad for people looking to reach Europe.

United Nations data shows that at least 12,000 people who arrived in Italy irregularly this year left from Tunisia, compared to 1,300 in the same time period last year.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked


The latest tragedy follows a similar one earlier this month that resulted in at least 30 people missing at sea after a boat capsized in bad weather. 

The Alarm Phone charity, which tracks the movements of small boats taking people across the Mediterranean, at the time accused Italian authorities of ignoring the plight of missing people during several crucial hours that could have saved lives.

Similar accusations have also been levelled towards Tunisian authorities.

Speaking at a summit in Brussels on Friday, Italy's far-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni warned that there may be a "migratory wave" towards Europe if Tunisia's political and economic situation does not stabilise.

Anti-African discrimination

Tunisia is currently facing its worst financial crisis since the 2011 Arab Spring uprising.

There is also increasing discrimination towards sub-Saharan people in Tunisia.

Last month, Tunisian President Kais Saied accused sub-Saharan Africans of being behind a crime wave across the country and described them as a demographic threat.

The latest tragedy follows a similar one in February when at least 61 people, including children, died when their wooden sailing boat that had set sail from Turkey crashed against rocks on the southern Italian coast. 

Thirty people missing as charity accuses Italy of abandoning migrant vessel in distress
Read More »

The incidents come a few months after Meloni, the leader of the "post-fascist" Brothers of Italy party, won power in October, partly on a promise to stem the flow of people reaching Italian shores.

Her administration has taken a hard line on migration since taking office, mostly by restricting the activities of rescue charities with tough new laws that won final parliamentary approval on Thursday.

Meloni accuses charities of encouraging migrants to make the dangerous sea journey to Italy, acting as so-called "pull factors".

Italy is one of the main landing points for people trying to enter Europe by sea, with many seeking to travel on to richer northern European nations. The so-called central Mediterranean route is known as one of the world's most dangerous.

The United Nations Missing Migrants Project has registered more than 17,000 deaths and disappearances in the central Mediterranean since 2014.

More than 220 have died or disappeared this year, it estimates.

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.