Migrant boat en route to Italy sinks off Tunisia in the Mediterranean; 20 dead, several missing

At least 20 migrants died after their boat sank off Tunisia on Thursday while trying to cross the Mediterranean, a Tunisian security official said.

The Tunisian coast guard rescued five people and were searching for about 20 others who were still unaccounted for, officials say.

“The boat sank about six miles from the coast of Sfax. Twenty bodies were recovered, five others were rescued, and all are from sub-Saharan Africa,” the security official, Ali Ayari, said.

Around 45 people were on the boat when it sank while it was on its way to the Italian island of Lampedusa, he added.

The coastline near the Tunisian port city of Sfax has become a major departure point for people fleeing conflict and poverty in Africa and the Middle East and searching for a better life in Europe.

Countries including Italy and Malta have seen an increase in sea arrivals this year from Tunisia, where due to uncertain socioeconomic conditions and Libya, where conflict and war is a major factor.

European responses have often been brutal over the years. Humanitarian organizations say pushbacks at borders in countries such as Greece, an absence of sea rescues in the Mediterranean and unhealthy coronavirus quarantine arrangements have created huge challenges.

Thursday’s deaths adds to the already long list recorded this year, even with Covid-19 travel restrictions in place.

1,111 migrants perished in the Mediterranean in 2020, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Last month, at least 74 migrants died in a shipwreck off the coast of Khums, Libya, with children among the dead.

And in October, at least 140 migrants drowned off the coast of Senegal in what the IOM described as the deadliest shipwreck this year.