Crew aboard Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) Severn class lifeboat, the City of London II, pick up migrants in an inflatable boat who were travelling across the English Channel, bound for Dover on the south coast of England. - More than 45,000 migrants arrived in the UK last year by crossing the English Channel on small boats. Image Credit: AFP file

TUNIS: At least 20 African migrants were missing on Saturday after their boat sank off Tunisia as they tried to cross the Mediterranean to Italy, a judicial official said, amidst a sharp rise in migrant boats from the North African country.

The coast guard rescued 17 others off the southern city of Sfax from the same boat, two of whom are in critical condition, Sfax court judge Faouzi Masmousdi said.

In recent weeks, dozens have gome missing and died in repeated drowning accidents off the Tunisian coast.

Tunisia has taken over from Libya as a main departure point for people fleeing poverty and conflict in Africa and the Middle East in the hope of a better life in Europe.

Migrant interceptions surge five-fold

On Friday, Tunisia’s coastguard said it had intercepted over 14,000 migrants trying to reach Europe from January to March, more than five times the number of those who attempted the trip in the first quarter of 2022.

“Coast guard patrols prevent 501 clandestine attempts to cross the maritime border and rescued 14,406 (migrants) including 13,138 from sub-Saharan African countries,” between January 1 and March 31, it said in a statement.

That is up from 2,532 intercepted in the same period last year, including 1,657 from sub-Saharan Africa, National Guard spokesman Houcem Eddine Jebabli told AFP.

“The number is well up, because many more people are trying to leave,” he said.

The vast majority of interceptions took place off the coast of Sfax and Mahdia provinces, whose shores lie just 150 kilometres (90 miles) from the Italian island of Lampedusa.

Tunisia has long served as a launchpad for people fleeing conflict in countries as far afield as Cameroon and Sudan to seek safety in Europe, often on overcrowded and unseaworthy boats.

Dozens of migrants from further south in Africa drowned in a string of incidents in March, after incendiary comments by Tunisian President Kais Saied sparked a wave of evictions and violence against black migrants.

The surge also comes as Italy’s hard right-wing government pressures Tunis to stem the flow.

According to the Italian interior ministry, more than 14,000 migrants have landed in Italy since the start of the year, compared to just over 5,300 during the same period last year.

Migration experts have argued that despite European leaders’ rhetoric against people traffickers, intercepting migrants while providing no safe passage for those genuinely needing it simply creates “repeat business” for traffickers.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said on Friday that Europe risks seeing a huge wave of migrants arriving on its shores from North Africa if financial stability in Tunisia is not safeguarded.

Meloni called on the IMF and other countries to help Tunisia quickly to avoid its collapse.

Tunisian Foreign Minister Nabil Ammar said last week the country needed funding and equipment to better protect its borders. Tunisia had received equipment from Italy in the past years, but Ammar said it was outdated and not sufficient.