As we travel down the long dirt road through Sfax’s famous olive groves, crowds begin to form.
Numerous Sub-Saharan African migrants are returning from La Louza beach, Tunisia’s eastern central coast. They had been heading for Lampedusa, an Italian island. But they ended up right back where they started: defeated and drained from their battle against the national coast guard.
Fae Raphael is one of them and yells with frustration as he approaches us. They were just released from detention.
They are big robbers, big racists. He shouts, “They took our phones and engines and our belongings as well as our phones and we left by boat.”
“They took our engines and we were in the middle the sea, they left us on top of the water.”
He is backed by many others who confirm his story.
Dossou Mamadou, from Ivory Coast, says that “we were swimming in the ocean from 8am until 2pm to reach the shore.” An older, calmer man walks back to the town, filled with despair.
“Right now, we cannot afford food or rent. We were evicted, and we don’t know where we will sleep. He says that the only way to solve this problem was to move to Europe, but unfortunately that didn’t work.”
At most 29 deaths after migrant boat crashes off Tunisia coast
In recent weeks, a statement made by Kais Saeed, Tunisian President, condemning illegal black migrants sparked a massive crackdown. Since then, thousands have been evicted, unemployed and arrested. Many are now taking repatriation flight back to their homelands, while others are continuing the dangerous journey across Europe’s Mediterranean Sea to escape the violence and instability from which they fled.
UN data shows that 12,000 migrants arrived in Italy by boat from Tunisia since 2023. Only 1,300 migrants made it the same journey last year.
The Tunisian coast guard claims it stopped 80 boats headed for Italy this week and held more than 3,000 migrants, , confirming that at least 29 are dead.
It is likely that the death toll will be even higher.
“I have counted 130 deceased,” said a trafficker, who spoke to us under anonymity.
He adds, “There were many disasters this week,” and he shook his head. He plans to arrange the crossing of his family members in the next days.
Tunisia is now the preferred route for illegal migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea to reach European shores. Most are leaving from Sfax, the capital and closest to the beach.
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These fishermen have worked these shores since childhood and claim they’ve never seen anything similar.
We were taken out by one of them on his boat to see the route, but he could not identify himself without fearing reprisal from coast guard. The prosecution against fishermen who helped drowning migrants has been to aid illegal migration.
“We saved many of their boats from drowning,” he said. He says that there are too many for small boats to transport so I have to lift them onto my boat and bring them to shore.
He claims that there are many more of them than we can count. They often drift along the water.
He says solemnly, “In the mornings I go out to retrieve fishing nets, I’ll often discover a corpse.”
It is a crisis.