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Dozens dead as migrants' boat capsizes off Tunisia coast

UN calls for expanded state-led search and rescue operations as number of migrants leaving Tunisia for Europe triples
The bodies of migrants are recovered at a Tunisian port after a shipwreck in December 2020 (AFP)

At least 41 people, including a child, drowned when a boat capsized off the Tunisian coast while trying to reach Italy, the United Nations and Tunisian officials said on Friday.

The Tunisian coastguard had so far recovered 21 bodies, all African migrants, and rescued three people, Tunisian officials said.

The boat had set off from the port of Sfax, from where another 39 people were killed in another shipwreck last month. It has become a major departure point for people fleeing conflict and poverty in Africa and the Middle East and seeking a better life in Europe.

Ali Ayari, spokesman for the Tunisian coast guard in Sfax, said search operations, halted due to bad weather, would continue on Saturday, AFP reported.

"This tragic loss of life underscores once again the need to enhance and expand state-led search and rescue operations across the Central Mediterranean, where some 290 people have lost their lives so far this year," the UN said in a statement

"Solidarity across the region and support to national authorities in their efforts to prevent loss of life and prosecute smugglers and traffickers should be a priority."  

The central Mediterranean is the deadliest route for would-be migrants to Europe, who usually board makeshift vessels for the crossing.

"So far this year, sea departures from Tunisia to Europe have more than tripled compared to the same period in 2020," the UN statement said.   

At least 1,200 migrants died in the Mediterranean last year, most of them crossing the central part of the sea, according to the UN.