Migrant boat disaster leaves more than 100 dead off Tunisian coast

The number of migrants leaving Tunisia for Italy expanded considerably, with 4,500 reaching Italy from Tunisia in 2017, a fourfold rise on 2016.
Sunday 10/06/2018
Boats are seen at a harbour in the southern island of Kerkennah, on June 3. (Reuters)
Leading nowhere. Boats are seen at a harbour in the southern island of Kerkennah, on June 3. (Reuters)

TUNIS - More than 100 people drowned after a boat carrying migrants capsized near the Tunisian island of Kerkennah in what is being called the worst migrant catastrophe of the year.

The shipwreck, the second in Tunisian waters in eight months, prompted the government to re-evaluate security conditions and raised concerns over growing disillusionment among young Tunisians. A migrant boat sunk in the same maritime area last October, killing at least 46 people.

Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed fired Interior Minister Lotfi Brahem and ten security officials, including two intelligence officers responsible for security in Kerkennah, following the June 3 accident. He promised to tighten security in the area and crack down on people smugglers.

“How is it that 180 people could reach, gather and leave the isle? Where was the police? That is a security failure,” Chahed told a local police chief while visiting Kerkennah. The police chief responded that the area lacked manpower and equipment.

“We took all the required security measures to remedy the security situation but nothing appears to have changed. That means such tragedy could happen again,” Chahed said.

The International Organisation for Migration said the death toll from the June 3 sinking was the single biggest incident of dead and missing this year in the Mediterranean.

The Tunisian Coast Guard said 68 people were rescued and more than 50 bodies recovered. Coast guard officials estimated that 180 people were on the ship, more than 100 of whom were Tunisian.

An international dispute broke out when Italy’s newly installed Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, head of the right-wing Northern League, said Tunisia was “exporting convicted criminals” to Europe. The Tunisian Foreign Ministry expressed “great surprise” at the comments and summoned the Italian ambassador in protest.

Tunisia said Salvini’s remarks “do not reflect the cooperation between the two countries in the management of immigration and indicate an incomplete knowledge of the various mechanisms of coordination that exist between the Tunisian and Italian authorities.”

Analysts said Tunisia and Italy have one of the most functional agreements on the readmission of undocumented migrants into the European Union, noting that Tunisians made up 35% of all repatriations by Italian authorities in 2015 and 43% in 2016.

Tunisia’s location at the tip of Africa makes it a springboard for migrants from the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa.

Francesco Rocca, president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said there was “an urgent need for global answers to protect the lives and basic human dignity of people on the move.”

“We cannot keep silent as the massacre on the sea continues,” he said. “The situation on the ground is not changing. On the contrary, it is worsening.”

The IFRC called on governments to give priority to efforts to save lives and to ensure the agreement protects all migrants at all stages of their journeys from violence, abuse and other rights violations.

The number of migrants leaving Tunisia for Italy expanded considerably, with 4,500 reaching Italy from Tunisia in 2017, a fourfold rise on 2016.

The growing numbers of Tunisians attempting to make risky sea crossings have prompted questions over why “a free and democratic country” is seeing its youth, including doctors and engineers, leave the country.

Leading political figures blamed Chahed’s unity government and the political class more broadly for failing to improve job opportunities and living conditions.

“We recognise our share of responsibility in the failure of the political class to restore hope to many quarters of the population who lost confidence in their country,” said Hafedh Caid Essebsi, executive director of the leading Nidaa Tounes party.

Abdelhamid Jelassi, a leading figure in the Islamist Ennahda Movement, the other main party in the coalition government, said: “The political class has failed the youth, with the education system failing to provide them good education and training that permit them to find jobs.”

Parliament member Samia Abbou, from the centre-left Democratic Current, said: “What’s responsible for the drowning of the migrants is the policy of ruin that wreaked havoc on the country and destroyed the hope among youth.”

Many of those who died during the recent boat wreck were from the southern region of Tataouine and nearby areas, where livelihoods of much of the population are dependent on the informal economy, which is closely linked to illicit cross-border trade with Libya.

Unemployment is widespread in south Tunisia, particularly among young people, and a growing number of university graduates are unemployed.

While most Tunisians who work in illicit trade or seek to migrate illegally are young with no permanent jobs, an increasing number of professionals with good positions are seeking to leave the country.

Since 2011, 4,200 university teachers have left Tunisia, a study by the presidency-run Tunisian Institute for Strategic Studies think-tank stated, and 78% of their colleagues expressed a desire to leave if conditions permit.

“We went from 9% of the doctors leaving in 2012 to 45% in 2017 with a decrease in the number in 2014,” said  Nezih Zghal, secretary-general of the National Order of Physicians.