TUNIS/GENEVA (Reuters) – The death toll from a ship packed with migrants that sank off Tunisia on Sunday has risen to at least 60, with dozens still missing, the United Nations migration agency said.
The overloaded boat went down near the southern island of Kerkenna. At least 100 people were killed or are missing, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said.
“Among the 60 victims transferred to the forensic department at Habib Bourguiba hospital in Sfax, 48 are Tunisians … 12 are non-Tunisian, the identifications are in progress,” Lorena Lando, chief of mission of the IOM in Tunisia said in a statement late on Monday.
Human traffickers increasingly use Tunisia as a launch pad for migrants heading to Europe as Libya’s coastguard, aided by armed groups, has tightened controls.
Tunisian authorities, which on Sunday said they had recovered 48 bodies, provided no new figures but said the coast guard was still searching for dozens of missing migrants.
The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said 52 people were confirmed dead with 60 missing and voiced concern about incidents along the central Mediterranean route.
“That’s why UNHCR is advocating for safe routes for refugees to travel so that these unnecessary deaths don’t take place. People should be able to find protection and travel in a legal, safe way,” UNHCR spokesman William Spindler told a briefing.
Countries must offer refugees “legal pathways” including resettlement, family reunification and student visas, he said. UNHCR estimates that about 17,000 refugees in North Africa are in need of resettlement.
The IOM said 68 people had been rescued after the vessel sank – 60 Tunisians, two Moroccans, one Libyan, one Malian, one Cameroonian national and three Ivorians. It said 1,910 Tunisian migrants reached Italy between Jan. 1 and April 30, including 39 women and 307 minors, 293 of whom were unaccompanied.
Security officials said the boat was packed with about 180 migrants, including 80 from other countries in Africa.
Survivors said the captain had abandoned the boat after it started sinking to escape arrest by the coastguard.
Unemployed Tunisians and other Africans have often tried to cross in makeshift boats from Tunisia to Sicily in southern Italy. The North African country’s economy is in crisis since the toppling of autocrat Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 threw Tunisia into turmoil with unemployment and inflation soaring.
On Tuesday, new Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte promised a crackdown on immigration.