At least 23 people missing off Tunisia coast, authorities say

Search and rescue operations under way while five suspects have been arrested, Tunisian National Guard says.

Migrants navigate on a boat as they are spotted by Tunisian coast guards at sea during their attempt to cross to Italy, off Sfax, Tunisia April 27, 2023. REUTERS/Jihed Abidellaoui
Migrants navigate on a boat as they are spotted by the Tunisian coastguard during their attempt to cross to Italy, off Sfax, Tunisia, April 27, 2023 [Jihed Abidellaoui/Reuters]

At least 23 people are missing off the Tunisian coast, local authorities have said, as search and rescue operations are under way.

Tunisia’s National Guard said in a statement on Saturday that it had been notified of “unauthorised sailing operations” from several areas along the Tunisian coast. Five suspects in organising the crossing have been arrested, it added.

The National Guard said families of the missing individuals had lost contact with them and notified the authorities. The statement did not identify the nationality of the missing people.

The state-run news agency TAP said a vessel departed from the town of Korba in the northeastern Nabeul governorate.

Both Tunisia and neighbouring Libya are key departure points for those looking to travel irregularly by boat to Europe.

Migrants seeking to travel to Europe often arrive on Tunisia’s coasts from across the globe, particularly from impoverished and conflict-stricken areas of sub-Saharan Africa. More than 12,000 people are registered as refugees and asylum seekers in Tunisia, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

Tunisian nationals have also sought to migrate to Europe via sea to escape poverty and search for employment opportunities. As of 2023, the unemployment rate in Tunisia was more than 16 percent, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Some 17,000 irregular Tunisian arrivals landed in Italy in 2023, many from working-class areas where refugees stay, like the industrial areas around Sfax, 278km (172 miles) south of Tunis on the coast.

In February, 17 Tunisians went missing after setting sail towards Italy on a fishing boat.

The central Mediterranean Sea is one of the world’s deadliest migration routes. About 3,000 migrants and asylum seekers are known to have drowned while crossing it since 2023, according to the International Organization For Migration (IOM).

The true figure is likely far higher.

In the first 11 months of 2023, Tunisia’s National Guard intercepted almost 70,000 irregular migrants and asylum seekers. Of those, 77.5 percent had travelled to Tunisia from across Africa.

Source: Al Jazeera