Published by InfoMigrants | 17 / Jan / 2024

Tunisian families await news of 40 migrants missing at sea

We report in Italian the article by Emma Wallis, published in InfoMigrants on 17 January, regarding the story of the boat that set sail from Tunisia and disappeared in the Mediterranean

The search continues for 40 Tunisians reported missing in the Mediterranean. Both Italy and Tunisia say they have been looking for the migrants since their families reported them missing last week.

Italian and Tunisian officials have been searching for around 40 Tunisian migrants who were reported missing after they set off in a boat towards Italy on January 11.

The Tunisian National Guard released video footage, reported Reuters, showing coast guard ships supported by aircraft involved in the search for the missing migrants.

The migrants, who are reported to be between 18 and 30 years of age, were last heard from on Wednesday (January 10). They are reported to be from the area around Sfax and left on a boat from that port on Wednesday night.

Alerts sent out last week

When relatives lost contact with them overnight, reported the French news agency Agence France Presse (AFP), they alerted the national guard.

The Italian news agency Agenzia Nova reported on Tuesday that the search is concentrating on the area of coast line between Sfax and Mahdia. Earlier in the week, Maltese and Italian units were also involved in the search.

The Italian coast guard told regional newspaper Il Giornale die Sicilia that they had alerted all vessels in the area too to look for a small boat carrying the migrants. "We have deployed various different vessels and our own aircraft in the search," said a spokesperson from the Italian coast guard. The spokesperson added that the search was initially coordinated by the Maltese Search and Rescue authorities, along with the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (IMRCC).

Various vessels, aircraft and countries participated in the search

The Italian coast guard spokesperson added that, during the course of the week of searches, vessels and aircraft from the Italian coast guard, the tax and border police (Guardia di Finanza), as well as Maltese vessels and Frontex planes had been used to search for the boat, but they had found no sign of it or its passengers.

The Italian journalist Sergio Scandura from Radio Radicale, who often reports on migration issues in the Mediterranean, wrote on X (formerly Twitter) on January 13 about the search for the missing.

Scandura listed details of the search and rescue effort, which were retweeted by the organization Alarm Phone, a hotline for migrants in distress in the Mediterranean.

the tweet by Sergio Scandura (@scandura)

Sub-Saharan migrants intercepted and detained

In the first 11 months of 2023, the Tunisian National Guard said it intercepted 69,963 migrants trying to reach Italy. This was more than double the number intercepted in the same time period the previous year. Around three-quarters were nationals of countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

The fate of those intercepted at sea varies. Some migrants have reported being detained by the authorities and then released after a short time. Others – mostly sub-Saharan Africans –have told organizations like Human Rights Watch that they were held for weeks or even months in centers throughout the country. In 2023, Human Rights Watch reported that some had been taken from these centers and then forcibly expelled at the borders with Libya and Algeria.

Lampedusa, boats used by migrants along the central Mediterranean route (photo: InfoMigrants)

Since February 2023, the mood in Tunisia against sub-Saharan migrants has worsened, following racist remarks made by President Kais Saied.

Saied blamed migrants for Tunisia's worsening economic and political situation. Following his remarks, many sub-Saharan migrants lost their jobs and homes and faced violence or discrimination on the streets of the country.

In 2023, the UN Migration Agency IOM recorded at least 2,498 missing migrants on the central Mediterranean route. The actual number of those who died or went missing could be far greater, since the departures are rarely, if ever, registered, so the data relies on families or friends alerting the authorities, or the search and rescue teams coming across a shipwreck and finding bodies.

According to Italian Interior Ministry data, last updated on January 16, 786 migrants have so far crossed the Mediterranean this year to reach Italy.

Cover photo: Tunisian National Guard

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