Geneva, June 5 (IANS/AKI) The United Nations refugee agency on Tuesday said it was “deeply saddened” at the loss of at least 52 lives over the weekend when a boat carrying some 180 refugees and migrants sank off the Tunisian coast.
“The UN Refugee Agency is deeply saddened at this latest tragedy in the Mediterranean Sea and is concerned about the high number of people dying on the Central Mediterranean route (to Italy) with over 700 dead or missing so far in 2018,” UNHCR spokesperson William Spindler told reporters.
The death toll from the shipwreck is likely to be over 100 as some 60 of the boat’s passengers are still missing at sea and presumed dead, UNHCR said.
The boat set sail from Melita in Tunisia’s Kerkennah Islands late on Saturday, heading in the direction of the Italian coast, Spindler said, citing Tunisian officials. But just two hours into the journey, the overcrowded boat broke down and began to sink, he said.
The boat was 16 nautical miles off the coast of Sfax when it sent a distress signal to which local fishermen responded, alerting the Tunisian Navy and Coastguard. The coastguard rescued 68 people and recovered 52 corpses but had to halt their search and rescue operation due to bad weather.
Two smugglers were arrested in connection with the incident, UNHCR said.
UNHCR said it is profiling and counselling survivors from the shipwreck and assessing their protection needs. There are 851 refugees and 109 asylum-seekers registered with UNHCR in Tunisia, the agency said.
Unemployed Tunisians and other Africans often seek to cross the Mediterranean sea in makeshift boats from Tunisia to Sicily in Italy.
More than 32,000 people have reached Europe by sea so far this year and 660 people have died attempting the crossing, according to the UN migration agency the International Organisation for Migration.
Although the number of people trying to reach Europe by boat from Turkey and northern Africa has fallen significantly in the past two years, the Mediterranean remains the world’s deadliest migration route.
UNHCR urged “durable” solutions for refugees and legal channels such as private sponsorship, family reunification and naturalisation. The agency last year supported the voluntary repatriation of five refugees, the resettlement of seven families (21 individuals) and the naturalisation of seven people.
In addition, five individuals left in 2017 under a private sponsorship scheme, it added.