The Tunisian coast guard announced on Thursday that 14 migrants from sub-Saharan African countries had drowned and 54 others had been rescued after the boat carrying them sank off the coast of Tunisia.
The boat carrying the migrants sank off the coast of Sfax (central-eastern Tunisia) on Wednesday night and the coast guard "recovered 14 bodies of migrants and rescued 54 others," said the spokesman for the Tunisian coast guard on its Facebook page.
The shipwreck comes at a time when many migrants from sub-Saharan African countries are seeking to leave Tunisia after Tunisian President Kais Saied made remarks against illegal immigration.
On February 21, Saied said the presence in Tunisia of "hordes" of illegal immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa was a source of "violence and crime" and a "criminal enterprise" aimed at "changing the demographic composition" of the country.
After this speech, condemned by NGOs as "racist and hateful", nationals of sub-Saharan African countries reported an upsurge in attacks against them and rushed by the dozen to their embassies to be repatriated.
According to official figures, Tunisia has more than 21,000 nationals from sub-Saharan African countries, the majority of whom are in an irregular situation, which is less than 0.2% of a total population of about 12 million.
Tunisia, a North African country whose coastline is less than 150 km from the Italian island of Lampedusa, regularly records attempts by migrants to leave for Italy.
According to official Italian figures, more than 32,000 migrants, including 18,000 Tunisians, arrived illegally in Italy from Tunisia in 2022.
In an apparent attempt to appease after the outcry over his remarks, Mr. Saied said during a meeting Wednesday with the President of Guinea-Bissau Umaro Sissoco Embalo, who was stopping in Tunis, that Africans in Tunisia were "brothers," according to a video released by the Tunisian presidency.
Affirming that the objective of his speech was to enforce the "Tunisian legality concerning foreigners" and prevent any "parallel jurisdiction to the state's jurisdictions", he rejected the "malicious comments" of those who "wanted to interpret the speech to their liking to harm Tunisia".
"This situation concerning Africans can not be interpreted by malicious tongues, as they have done in recent days, as racism. What are they talking about? They are rambling," he added.