Migrants die in new wrecks off Tunisia, Morocco

TUNIS (AFP/APP): Twenty-seven migrants from sub-Saharan Africa are dead or missing and 53 others were rescued after two flimsy boats sank off Tunisia’s coast during attempts to reach Europe, an official said.
The incidents are the latest of several over the past few weeks, and came after Tunisian officials reported a five-fold increase in rescues compared with the first quarter of last year.
In Morocco, 11 migrants drowned when their makeshift boat sank off the west coast, media reports said, adding that the dead were eight Moroccans and three sub-Saharans trying to reach Spain’s Canary Islands.
One migrant was reported to have been rescued.
There was no immediate confirmation of the reports from the Moroccan authorities.
In Tunisia, Faouzi Masmoudi, the court spokesman in Sfax city, told AFP that four people died, three were missing and another three dozen were saved in the latest tragedy off the country’s coast on Saturday.
“There was a new shipwreck this morning — four bodies were recovered from the beach at Sfax and three other people are missing. Another 36 were saved,” Masmoudi said.
He said that another vessel with 37 people aboard went down after setting off from Tunisia’s coast before it “sank on Friday afternoon”, and that 20 people were unaccounted for.
Citing witness accounts, he added that 17 people were rescued from Friday’s incident.
Enquiries have begun into both incidents, Masmoudi said.
He said the objective was to “find out the organisers behind these attempted crossings in boats made from metal sheeting which don’t even offer minimum safety conditions but are cheaper to make than wooden ones”. Tunisia’s shores, only about 150 kilometres (90 miles) from the Italian island of Lampedusa, are increasingly being used as a springboard for often perilous attempts by West Africans, Sudanese and others to reach safety and better lives in Europe.
Saturday’s sinking was at least the seventh since the beginning of March, according to an AFP tally, in incidents which have left around 100 people dead or missing.
The latest cases add to the more than 14,000 migrants which Tunisia’s coastguard said on Friday it had intercepted on their way to Europe between January and March.
That is more than five times the number from the first quarter of 2022, official data showed.
“Coast guard patrols prevent 501 clandestine attempts to cross the maritime border and rescued 14,406 (migrants) including 13,138 from sub-Saharan African countries,” between January 1 and March 31, the coastguard said in a statement.
That is up from 2,532 intercepted in the same period last year, including 1,657 from sub-Saharan Africa, National Guard spokesman Houcem Eddine Jebabli told AFP.
“The number is well up, because many more people are trying to leave,” he said.
Dozens of migrants drowned in a string of incidents last month after comments in February by Tunisian President Kais Saied.
He ordered officials to take “urgent measures” to tackle irregular migration, claiming without evidence that “a criminal plot” was under way to change Tunisia’s demographic makeup. The comments led to a wave of evictions and violence against black migrants. Tunisia itself is in the throes of a long-running socio-economic crisis, with spiralling inflation and persistently high joblessness.
Tunisians are also among the migrants trying to reach Italian shores. Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni last month urged greater support for the North African country.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned that a Tunisian collapse “economically or socially” could trigger a new flow of migrants to Europe — an assessment rejected by Tunis. An EU delegation visited Tunisia in late March to examine the situation and discuss cooperation over irregular migration. According to the Italian interior ministry, more than 14,000 migrants have landed in Italy since the start of the year, compared with just over 5,300 during the same period last year.