29th Feb 2024

Lethal week for EU-bound migrants, as 68 more people die

  • Deserts as well as seas claiming thousands of lives a year (Photo: Nikolaj Bock/
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Some 41 people drowned en route to Italy, while 27 others died of heat-related complications in the Libyan desert this week.

The latest boat tragedy happened on 3 August when a rickety vessel carrying 45 people was overturned by a large wave a few hours after leaving the port of Sfax in Tunisia, survivors told Italian authorities.

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A 13-year old boy, a woman, and two men clung to lifejackets and bits of rubber, before coming across another empty boat floating around.

They stayed adrift for five days until they were spotted by a surveillance plane from the EU border-control agency Frontex, rescued by a Maltese cargo ship and handed to the Italian coastguard, who took them to the island of Lampedusa, Italian sources told the Ansa and Reuters news agencies.

"Sub-Saharan migrants are forced to use these low-cost iron boats which break after 20 or 30 hours of navigation. With this kind of sea, these boats capsize easily," Flavio Di Giacomo, a spokesman for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), a UN body, also told AFP.

The 41 deaths mark the worst single incident since 76 people drowned near the Italian coast in March.

The central Mediterranean route to Europe has now become "the deadliest in the world", IOM spokesman Laurence Heart also told the BBC on Thursday (10 August).

It is hard to keep up with the body count, as both Italy and Tunisia recovered several other bodies at sea in recent days.

But according to the IOM, more than 2,330 people have lost their lives or went missing so far this year trying to cross the Mediterranean, compared to 2,965 in all of 2022.

Meanwhile, other people are dying in the desert on the way to Europe before they get on unsafe boats.

Libya's border guard found 27 bodies in the desert near the Tunisian border this week, its interior ministry spokesman Mohamed Hamouda told the AP news agency on Wednesday.

Tunisia, which receives hundreds of millions of euros in EU aid, denies expelling sub-Saharan migrants trying to get to the coast.

But a group of 15 people from Sudan, Senegal, Ghana, and Mali told Reuters this week they had been arrested by Tunisian authorities, driven over the border into Libya, and dumped.

"It was just a horrible feeling to walk in the middle of nowhere," said Tafaul Omar, a pregnant nurse who had fled the civil war in Sudan.

"Tunisia is not responsible for what happens outside its borders", Tunisian interior ministry spokesperson Faker Bouzgaya said.

About 300 other migrants like Omar had received food and medical assistance in the same desert area near Tunisia in recent times, the IOM noted.

At least 1,028 people died on north African and Middle East land routes to Europe last year, according to the UN body, compounding the tragedies at sea.

"The actual number of deaths on migratory routes within and from the MENA [Middle East and North Africa] region is likely much higher than reported," the IOM said in June.

"Our data shows that 92 percent of people dying on this route remain unidentified," it added.

"We need the EU and the Western world to take more care of Africa," said Lucio Malan, a senator from Italy's ruling right-wing Brothers of Italy party.

"Nato has forgotten for years that we have a southern border that is very delicate," he added.

Malan accused China and Russia of stirring extra migration by buying up vast swathes of land or by getting involved in violent coups and civil wars, as in Niger and Sudan.

"They cause it [irregular migration to the EU] and probably they want it," Malan told the BBC on Thursday.

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