Tunisia can no longer handle the stranded bodies of dead migrants
On April 8, 25 people drowned off Tunisia; a week later 27 people; 70 other people on April 24. These are not isolated examples and only relate to the last month. Every day, refugees attempt to cross the Mediterranean. People are boarding boats, especially from the North African countries of Libya and Tunisia. But hundreds perish in the attempt.
Cemeteries and morgues in Tunisia’s coastal region of Sfax are becoming overcrowded. For example, the hospital in this region has room for about 40 bodies in the morgue, but dozens of people wash each day. This year, they are more than 300 around Sfax, according to Tunisian figures. The cemetery of Sfax is therefore forced to expand, additional graves are made especially for the castaways.
“In the south of Tunisia, a cemetery has been created especially for deceased migrants, even this one is almost full,” explains anthropologist Amade M’charek from the University of Amsterdam. “And most people are still at the bottom of the sea.” M’charek investigates the identity of refugees who died on the Tunisian coast. “People are often only identified by external characteristics, for example what they are wearing. This is only possible if these people are missing.”
“Entire families are dying”
It’s no longer the case that only men make the crossing, says M’charek. “We are past this stage. Whole families, women, children, grandparents, get on boats. If they die, there is not much political enthusiasm in Tunisia to investigate. With the hot weather, local authorities want to bury people as quickly as possible. . And local hospital morgues are not equipped to store bodies for a long time, which is also understandable.”
Unfortunately, it is not an exception if a boat fails to cross. And when it goes badly, it goes very badly. Dozens to hundreds of people are crammed into old fishing boats or unsuitable dinghies. “All the boats are always full and the people on board almost never wear a life jacket,” explains Caroline Willemen, head of rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea for Doctors Without Borders. The organization sometimes saves hundreds of people a day.
Risk of burns and choking
In addition to freezing water and the risk of drowning, there are even more risks on board, says Willemen. “When gasoline mixes with salty sea water, a reaction occurs that can cause serious burns. Also, people are often found who have not had water or food for days. ” People can also suffocate from exhaust fumes if they sit below the deck of the boat, Willemen says. “Once I found dozens of people who were already dead under the bridge when we came to the rescue.”
But the likelihood of boats being spotted by emergency services is low, Willemen says. This year, 41,000 people have already arrived in Italy via the Mediterranean Sea, four times more than last year. They often sail to Italian Lampedusa, an island relatively close to Africa. Thousands of other people never arrived in Europe: they were intercepted by the coastguards of the country from which they left or died.
Hunt for migrants in Tunisia
According to the UN refugee agency, most will arrive by boat from Tunisia this year. This is due to various factors, explains RTL correspondent in the Middle East, Olaf Koens. “We actually see two groups of migrants,” says Koens. “This concerns Tunisians trying to escape unemployment in the country and migrants from other parts of Africa, who use Tunisia as a springboard to Europe.”
Tensions have risen in Tunisia in recent months. “On the one hand, we see the government of President Kais Saied stepping up the pressure. It had several opposition leaders arrested last month. At the same time, it is adding fuel to the fire by blaming the country’s problems on African migrants.” Life has therefore become more dangerous for black immigrants living in Tunisia since this year. In a speech in February, the president voiced a conspiracy theory that black Africans would like to take over the country. Shortly after the speech, black migrants were evicted from their homes and entire neighborhoods were violently attacked.
No solution in sight
“This is not the first time that the migration crisis in Tunisia has hit a low point,” says correspondent Koens. “In recent years, we have seen more and more migrants from Tunisia. It is a corrupt criminal system with smugglers where local authorities play a dubious role.” He doesn’t see a solution in Tunisia happening anytime soon. “Rather the opposite. President Saied can use the migration flow to put pressure on the European Union and will use it to legitimize his takeover of the country.
International aid workers say the number of refugees rose after Tunisia’s president launched a manhunt. Many of them decided to leave the country as soon as possible. And many of those who boarded boats are still missing.
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