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Tunisia struggles to cope with migrant corpses drowned at sea

A father carries his daughter over the Rio Grande river toward Del Rio, Texas, from Ciudad Acuna, Mexico, Sept. 22, 2021   -  
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So many migrants risking the dangerous sea crossing from Tunisia to Europe have drowned that morgues and hospitals in the key launchpad city of Sfax are full, officials said Friday.

"On Tuesday, we had more than 200 bodies, well beyond the capacity of the hospital, which creates a health problem," said Faouzi Masmoudi, justice official in the port city of Sfax, which has the central morgue for an area of around a million people.

"There is a problem with large numbers of corpses arriving on the shore. We don't know who they are or what shipwreck they came from -- and the number is increasing".

Tunisia, whose coastline is less than 150 kilometres (90 miles) from the Italian island of Lampedusa, has long been a favoured stepping stone for migrants attempting the perilous sea journey from North Africa to Europe.

Masmoudi said there are funerals "almost every day to reduce the pressure on hospitals".

On April 20, at least 30 people were buried. Days later, many more bodies were recovered at sea.

DNA swaps are taken from each body before burial to help their possible identification by relatives, he said.

More than 220 dead and missing have been recorded this year until April 24, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, said Romdhane Ben Amor of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES).

More than three-quarters of migrants leaving Tunisia do so from the coast between Sfax and Mahdia, some 90 kilometres (55 miles) north, he added.

The problem of managing the bodies of those drowned in shipwrecks is complicated by the fact that local authorities "have undertaken to create a special cemetery for migrants on the grounds that they are not Muslims", Ben Amor said.

Many of those drowned come from Muslim nations.

The number of departures of migrants has intensified after President Kais Saied made a fiery speech on February 21 claiming that illegal immigration was a demographic threat to Tunisia.

While many of the migrants come from further south in Africa, Tunisia is also in the grip of a worsening economic crisis that has pushed many of its citizens to take desperate measures in search of better lives abroad.

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