Fourteen migrants from sub-Saharan African countries drowned and fifty-four others were rescued after the sinking of the boat carrying them off the coast of Tunisia, the coast guards announced on Thursday. The boat transporting these migrants sank off Sfax (center-east) in the night from Wednesday to Thursday and the coast guards “rescued 14 bodies of migrants and rescued 54 others”, indicated the spokesperson for the Tunisian Coast Guard on its Facebook page.
This shipwreck comes at a time when many migrants from sub-Saharan African countries are seeking to leave Tunisia after Tunisian President Kais Saied’s remarks against illegal immigration. On February 21, the latter affirmed that the presence in Tunisia of “hordes” of illegal immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa was a source of “violence and crimes” and was part of a “criminal enterprise” aimed at “changing the composition demographic” of the country.
After this speech, condemned by NGOs as “racist and hateful”, nationals of sub-Saharan African countries reported an upsurge in attacks against them and rushed by the dozens to their embassies to be repatriated. According to official figures, Tunisia has more than 21,000 nationals from sub-Saharan African countries, the majority in an irregular situation, or less than 0.2% of a total population of around 12 million.
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Tunisia, a North African country with certain stretches of coastline located less than 150 km from the Italian island of Lampedusa, very regularly records attempts to leave migrants for Italy. According to official Italian figures, more than 32,000 migrants, including 18,000 Tunisians, arrived in Italy illegally from Tunisia in 2022.
In an apparent concern for appeasement after the outcry caused by his remarks, Kais Saied affirmed during an interview on Wednesday with the President of Guinea-Bissau Umaro Sissoco Embalo, who was stopping over in Tunis, that the Africans present in Tunisia were “brothers”, according to a video released by the Tunisian presidency.
Affirming that the objective of his speech was to ensure respect for “Tunisian legality concerning foreigners” and to prevent any “jurisdiction parallel to the jurisdictions of the State”, he rejected the “malicious remarks” of those who “wanted interpret the speech as they please to harm Tunisia”. “This situation concerning Africans cannot be interpreted by malevolent tongues, as they have been doing in recent days, as racism. What are they talking about? They wander,” he added.
Read also: The ordeal of sub-Saharans in Tunisia