The Tunisian national guard announced Thursday the arrest of a major smuggler already sentenced to a total of 79 years in prison, accused of having organized a departure of Tunisian migrants which ended in a shipwreck and 20 deaths.
Two groups of investigators in Sfax, Tunisia's second city and the starting point for a large number of illegal crossings to Italy, "succeeded in arresting an organizer of clandestine crossings who was the subject of 24 wanted notices and had been sentenced to 79 years in prison," the National Guard said on its Facebook page.
In Italy, Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi welcomed the arrest "of a person suspected of being one of the main smugglers involved in departures from Sfax".
According to the Tunisian national guard, this smuggler had organized a clandestine crossing of 20 Tunisians, who left from the town of Chebba and who perished in the sinking of their boat last September.
Certain portions of Tunisian territory are less than 150 km from the Italian island of Lampedusa and migration attempts are regularly recorded, by people from sub-Saharan Africa but also by many Tunisians.
In recent weeks, due to very bad weather in the Mediterranean, departures have slowed down, but according to the European agency Frontex, between January and April, the number of irregular entries of migrants into the European Union via the central Mediterranean, increased by almost 300% compared to the same period of 2022, reaching 42,200.
From Tunisia, Frontex observed "1,100% growth compared to last year" over the same period.
In the first three months of 2023, the National Guard reported having intercepted or rescued 14,406 people, including 13,138 nationals from sub-Saharan Africa, the rest being Tunisians.
The departure of African migrants from Tunisia intensified after a speech on February 21 by President Kais Saied condemning illegal immigration and presenting it as a demographic threat to his country.
Tunisia is going through a serious politico-economic crisis which is also pushing many Tunisians to try to reach Europe illegally by sea at the risk of their lives.