Boat with 37 Migrants Missing off Tunisian Coast

Friday January 19, 2024 - 18:23:23
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Staff Reporter
Tunis (diplomat.so) - A vessel reportedly transporting 37 irregular migrants and asylum seekers has mysteriously vanished off the coast of Sfax in Tunisia, prompting distress and frustration among their families. Departing on January 11, the boat lost all communication with relatives by 10 pm the same day, raising fears for the safety of those on board.
The missing passengers, hailing mostly from the small village of El Hancha in the Sfax Governorate, range in age from 13 to 35 years old, with only a handful from other parts of Tunisia. Concerned by the lack of updates, families of the undocumented migrants took to the streets, setting up roadblocks and burning tires around the village. Authorities intervened, pledging to continue search efforts, leading to the withdrawal of the protests.

One of the distraught family members, Mohammed Jlaiel, expressed his anguish, stating, "We're desperate for a piece of news on them. They were all our neighbors and friends. The whole [of] Hancha is in pain."

The Tunisian National Guard has activated all available resources, including maritime vessels and helicopters, in the search for the missing boat. Assistance from Maltese and Italian units has also been reported.

Criticism has emerged from both politicians and family members regarding the perceived delay in obtaining concrete information about the incident. Majdi Karbai, a member of parliament overseeing Tunisians abroad, argued that the missing migrants were the latest victims of Europe's migration policies. He criticized the European Union's efforts to control irregular migration, asserting that it endangers lives.

Karbai's concerns extend beyond the immediate situation, fearing potential unrest similar to that following a 2022 shipwreck in Zarzis, where protests erupted due to dissatisfaction with the rescue effort and economic conditions prompting the fatal voyage. He emphasized the urgency of addressing the information vacuum surrounding the lost boat to prevent a similar scenario in El Hancha.

Poverty and limited employment opportunities within Tunisia often drive locals to seek better prospects in Europe, while migrants from various regions, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, also arrive on Tunisia's coasts. The central Mediterranean migration route, popular but perilous, has claimed numerous lives, with the International Organization for Migration reporting 2,498 drownings in 2023.

Tunisia's National Guard intercepted nearly 70,000 irregular migrants and asylum seekers in the first 11 months of 2023, with the majority arriving from across Africa. Ali Jlaiel, one of the missing passengers, exemplifies the struggle for a better life, facing economic challenges even with steady employment. His brother, Mohammed, highlighted the grim circumstances, stating, "There's nothing in Hancha. And he's not a special case. The boat was full of our neighbors. Even kids as young as 13 and 14. They all didn't find any chance here."

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