Migrant boat with 86 on board sinks off Tunisia, 4 rescued


A traumatised young Malian plucked out of the sea off Tunisia after clinging for two days to debris from an inflatable which sank told Thursday of how more than 80 migrants are feared drowned.

The latest tragedy came to light the same week as 44 migrants were killed in an air strike on their detention centre in a suburb of the Libyan capital. Only four of 86 migrants were rescued after their boat capsized off Tunisia crossing the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy, Tunisia’s coast guard said.

Malian survivor Soleiman Coulibaly, still in a state of shock, said their inflatable sank on Monday and the engine caught fire at the same time. “People were terrified as water started pouring in, some of them fell into the water. They stayed down there,” he told.

The passengers were from Guinea, the Ivory Coast, Mali and Burkina Faso, said the young man. Among those lost in the water were four women, one of them pregnant and another with a baby. The boat started to leak and tipped over only hours after setting out to sea from the Libyan town of Zuwara, west of Tripoli, sending panicked passengers rushing to one side of the vessel.

“We spent two days like that, clinging to a piece of wood,” the Malian told the International Organisation for Migration representative for southern Tunisia, Wajdi Ben Mhamed.

“He doesn’t know what happened to the others. They’re missing and there’s a high probability that they drowned,” Ben Mhamed said. The Red Crescent and the navy told that three Malians and an Ivorian were rescued off Zarzis in southern Tunisia on Wednesday by the coast guard who had been alerted by local fishermen.

The Ivorian, however, died in hospital and one of the Malians has also been hospitalized in intensive care. “About 80 migrants are feared dead. More updates are needed in order to confirm what happened and the actual number of missing,” Flavio Di Giacomo, an IOM spokesman, tweeted.

In neighbouring Libya, at least 44 migrants were killed and more than 130 wounded Tuesday night in an air strike that targeted a hangar in a detention centre in the Tripoli suburb of Tajoura.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR in a statement Thursday said it was “saddened” by the latest tragedy off Tunisia’s shores. “The status quo cannot continue,” said Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR Special Envoy for the Mediterranean.

“Nobody puts their lives and the lives of their families at risk on these desperate boat journeys unless they feel they have no other choice. We need to provide people with meaningful alternatives that stops them from needing to step foot on a boat in the first place.”

The agency also called for an end to the detention of migrants in Libya. “Given the ongoing violence in Tripoli and the clear risk to civilian lives, it is now more urgent than ever that refugees and migrants held in detention centres are released so they can be moved to safety,” it said.

Libya, which has been wracked by chaos since the 2011 uprising that killed veteran dictator Moamer Kadhafi, has long been a major transit route for migrants, especially from sub-Saharan Africa, desperate to reach Europe.

Tunisian fishermen are spending more and more time pulling in stranded migrants after a sharp decline in humanitarian and European naval patrols along the stretch of water between Libya and Italy.

European countries in the northern Mediterranean are trying to stem the number of migrants landing on their shores, and the Tunisian navy with its limited resources only rescues boats inside the country’s territorial waters.

Humanitarian boats and those of the European Union’s “Operation Sophia” anti-piracy force had scooped up many stranded migrants in recent years, but rescue operations dropped in 2019.

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