By Stefan J. Bos
Rescue workers, many wearing masks because of the coronavirus pandemic, dealt with another crisis. Officials suggested that that the death toll from a ship packed with African migrants that sank off the Tunisian coast here rose to scores of people.
With most bodies from this latest tragedy in the Mediterranean Sea now being recovered, there seemed no hope that any one of the 53 people on board survived.
The weekend accident, near the Tunisian city of Sfax, ended the dreams of migrants who wanted to make the crossing to Italy start a new life in Europe. A court order has been issued to investigate who organized the ill-fated journey. Authorities said that among the nearly 50 bodies recovered so far were at least 23 women and two children.
Their bodies were brought to the Habib Bourguiba University Hospital in Sfax. The Sfax Heath Director, Ali al-Ayadi, said that "many of the bodies belong to countries from South Africa, and they are sub-Saharan citizens." And, he added, "We hope that the identities of the bodies will be quickly identified. And that their families will bury them as soon as possible."
Tunisian media also suggested that a large number may have come from conflict and poverty-stricken Ivory Coast. Separately, police announced
that one of those who drowned was identified as a Tunisian male who allegedly piloted the boat.
Last year, 86 African migrants drowned after their boat capsized, having set off for Europe from Libya. That was one of the worst such accidents in Tunisia.
And this week's incident underscored that many migrants fleeing war, persecution, and poverty continue to drown on the Mediterranean Sea.
The International Organization for Migration says that as of last October, roughly 19,000 migrants have drowned or disappeared in the Mediterranean since 2014. Figures seen by Vatican News showed hundreds drowned this year alone.
More suffering is expected. The United Nations refugee agency says attempts to reach the Italian coast from Tunisia alone have jumped by 150 percent in the first four months of the year, compared to the same period last year.
Tunisia is both a transit country for migrants from elsewhere in Africa and a source of Europe-bound migrants.