A minimum of 16 folks killed in refugee shipwrecks off North Africa | Migration Information

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At least 16 people have died in shipwrecks off Tunisia and Western Sahara as North Africa faces a spike in Europe-bound sea crossings.

Tunisia in particular has become a major gateway for refugees, primarily from other parts of Africa, attempting perilous voyages in the hopes of a better life.

The death toll from a shipwreck on Sunday off Tunisia rose to 11 after more bodies were found.

“Seven new bodies have been recovered on Sunday evening,” said Faouzi Masmoudi, spokesman for the court in Sfax, Tunisia’s second largest city, which is near the site of the sinking that took place over the weekend in the Mediterranean Sea.

Two people have been rescued out of the 57 on board, all from sub-Saharan African countries, Masmoudi said, adding that authorities continued to search for the missing.

Survivors of the latest reported sinking, near Tunisia’s Kerkennah Islands in the Mediterranean, said their makeshift boat had departed over the weekend from a beach north of Sfax with 57 people on board.

The distance between Sfax and the Italian island of Lampedusa is about 130km (80 miles).

In a separate incident, authorities in Morocco on Monday said the bodies of five people, all from Senegal, were recovered and 189 people were rescued after a boat capsized off Western Sahara.

Eleven people in critical condition were transferred to a hospital in Dakhla, the disputed Western Sahara’s second largest city, a military source told Moroccan state media.

According to the source, the boat had embarked from “a country located south of the kingdom [of Morocco]” and was headed towards Spain’s Canary Islands before being discovered off the coast of Guerguart, just north of Mauritania.

Migrants who were rescued at open sea off Greece along with other migrants, after their boat capsized, are seen inside a warehouse, used as shelter, at the port of Kalamata, Greece, June 15, 2023. Angelos Tzortzinis/Pool via REUTERS
Refugees rescued at sea off Greece after their boat capsized were taken to a warehouse in the port of Kalamata, Greece, on June 15, 2023 [File: Angelos Tzortzinis/Reuters]

Deadly route

The central Mediterranean crossing from North Africa to Europe is the world’s deadliest with more than 20,000 fatalities since 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

According to Tunisia’s interior ministry, 901 bodies had been recovered this year by July 20 after accidents in the Mediterranean while 34,290 people had been rescued or intercepted. Most of them came from sub-Saharan African countries, it said.

More than 1,800 people have died attempting the crossing from North Africa to Europe so far this year, IOM press officer Flavio Di Giacomo said on Sunday – almost 900 more than last year.

“The truth is that figure is likely to be much higher. Lots of bodies are being found at sea, suggesting there are many shipwrecks we never hear about,” he said.

The number of bodies found has increased in particular on the so-called Tunisian route, which has become increasingly dangerous because of the type of boats used, Di Giacomo said.

Refugees are being put out to sea by traffickers “in iron boats, which cost less than the usual wooden ones, but are utterly unseaworthy. They easily break up and sink,” he said.

Nearly 90,000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Italy so far this year, according to United Nations refugee agency. Most of them have embarked from Tunisia or neighbouring Libya.

The crossing attempts multiplied in March and April after a speech by Tunisian President Kais Saied, who alleged that “hordes” of sub-Saharan Africans were causing crime and posing a demographic threat to the mainly Arab country.

Xenophobic attacks targeting Black African refugees, migrants and students have increased across the country since Saied’s February remarks, and many have lost jobs and housing.

Since early July, hundreds of refugees and migrants have been driven out of Sfax after a Tunisian man’s death in an altercation with a group of sub-Saharan Africans.

In the following days, Tunisian police took Black refugees and migrants to the desert or perilous areas near the Libyan and Algerian borders, rights groups and international organisations said.

Humanitarian sources have put their number at more than 2,000 with at least 25 reported deaths in the Tunisian-Libyan border area since last month.

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