More than 1,000 Africans trying to reach Europe have been rescued in a single night off Tunisia, the coast guard said Friday, after a wave of violence against black migrants.
Last month President Kais Saied ordered officials in the North African country to take “urgent measures” to tackle irregular migration, claiming without evidence that “a criminal plot” was underway to change Tunisia’s demographic makeup.
His comments fuelled attacks, evictions, and other retaliation against migrants, international rights groups said Thursday, after West African countries, flew home hundreds of their fearful nationals.
Tunisia’s coast guard said in a statement that it had rescued 1,008 migrants overnight Thursday-Friday off the coast, which lies about 130 kilometres (80 miles) from the Italian island of Lampedusa at its closest point.
Most of the rescued migrants were from sub-Saharan Africa but 54 Tunisians were also rescued, the coast guard said.
Its spokesman added that at least 25 crossing attempts to Italy had been disrupted overnight.
Fourteen Africans drowned in the Mediterranean when two migrant boats sank off Tunisia this week, a spokesman for the court in charge of the investigation into the deaths said on Thursday.
According to figures from the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), drawn from official sources, around 21,000 undocumented migrants from other parts of Africa live in Tunisia, a country of about 12 million inhabitants.
Saied has seized almost total power since July 2021. Critics accuse him of seeking to install a new dictatorship in the country grappling with inflation and shortages of essential goods.
The World Bank effectively suspended new lending to cash-strapped Tunisia after Saied’s remarks.
On Wednesday he denied racism. “I am African and I am proud to be African,” Saied said in a video released by the presidency.
More than 32,000 migrants, including 18,000 Tunisians, reached Italy from Tunisia last year, Rome said in February. Thousands more have departed from neighbouring Libya.