TUNIS: Thirty-four migrants from sub-Saharan Africa were missing off Tunisia’s Mediterranean coast on Friday after their boat capsized, a court official said, the latest in a string of tragedies this month.

The boat carrying 38 people had set off on Thursday from near Sfax and was attempting to reach Italy, said Fawzi El Masmoudi, a court spokesman in the port city.

Sub-Saharan African migrants residing in Tunisia have been living in fear since an incendiary speech by President Kais Saied speech last month, in which he accused them of representing a demographic threat and causing a crime wave.

The North African country’s population of 12 million hosts an estimated 21,000 migrants from other parts of Africa, representing 0.2 per cent of the population.

Earlier Friday, Alarm Phone, a charity monitoring migrant boats, said that 40 people were at risk on a “boat in distress trying to escape Tunisia”.

Those on board reported that “so-called Tunisian coastguards have removed their engine, beaten some of them, and abandoned them at sea,” the group said.

The latest deadly shipwreck off Tunisia, one of at least four this month, comes two days after five sub-Saharan African migrants drowned and another 28 went missing when a boat carrying 38 mostly Ivorian migrants capsized.

In the days after Saied’s speech, slammed by rights groups as “racist hate speech”, migrants reported an upsurge in racist attacks and many were evicted from their accommodation by landlords fearing large fines or prison for housing them.

Those working informally in construction and other sectors also lost their jobs, and thousands rushed to their embassies to be repatriated.

While some migrants arrive in Tunisia to study, many use the country as a springboard for attempts to reach Europe by sea. European governments have pressured Tunis to rein in the flow.

Parts of Tunisia’s coastline are within 150 kilometres of the Italian island of Lampedusa.

A spokesman for the Tunisian National Guard said on Friday that in 24 hours, the coastguard had intercepted more than 1,000 migrants, 25 of them Tunisians.

Italian PM’s warning

Italy’s hard-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni warned on Friday that Tunisia’s “serious financial problems” risked sparking a “migratory wave” towards Europe.

She also confirmed plans for a mission to the North African country involving the Italian and French foreign ministers.

Meloni echoed comments earlier in the week by Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, who warned Tunisia risks economic collapse that could trigger a new flow of migrants to Europe, fears Tunis has since dismissed.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned this week that Tunisia urgently needs to reach a bailout deal with the International Monetary Fund.

Published in Dawn, March 25th, 2023

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