At least five African migrants were killed and another 28 missing when a boat from Tunisia sank as they were trying to cross the Mediterranean, an official with a local rights group said.
Romadan Ben Omar, Officer in Tunisian The Forum for Social and Economic Rights said the coast guard rescued five migrants who were in a “poor psychological state” on a boat that capsized off the coast of the southern city of Sfax.
Tunisian officials were not immediately available for comment.
The coast of Sfax has become a major departure point for people fleeing poverty and conflict in Africa and the Middle East for a better life in Europe.
The incident comes amid a significant increase in migration Boats headed for Italy off the Tunisian coast and in the midst of a campaign of arrests by Tunisian authorities targeting undocumented sub-Saharan African immigration.
Of those arriving in Italy this year, 12,000 took the sea voyage from Tunisia, according to unofficial UN figures, compared to 1,300 in the same period in 2022. Previously, Libya was the main launch pad for migrants from the region.
Last month, President Kais Saeed Comments widely criticized by rights groups and the African Union stated that undocumented sub-Saharan African immigration was a conspiracy aimed at changing Tunisia’s demographic make-up.
He ordered security forces to expel any expatriates living illegally in Tunisia.
A senior UN official said the order had prompted people to flee the country, even though they had no intention of crossing the dangerous border to Europe beforehand.
As Tunisia grapples with its worst-ever financial crisis due to stalled talks with the International Monetary Fund for a loan amid fears of default on debt payments, there is growing concern from Europe, especially neighboring Italy.
Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani earlier told Reuters that Rome wanted the IMF to free Tunisia’s $1.9 billion debt, fearing that without the cash the country would become unstable, unleashing a new wave of migrants toward Europe.