The death toll from refugee shipwrecks off the coast of Tunisia has reached an unprecedented level, with officials reporting that morgues and hospitals in the city of Sfax are full. Tunisian coastguards have retrieved 41 bodies from Tunisian waters, bringing the total number of victims to 210 in just 10 days. The bodies were in a decomposed state, suggesting that they had been in the water for several days. Most of the asylum seekers attempting to reach Italy from Tunisia are from sub-Saharan Africa, Syria, and Sudan, and the number of boats carrying them has risen sharply in recent months. This is partly due to a crackdown on departures by authorities in neighbouring Libya.
Tunisia’s coastline is less than 150km (90 miles) from the Italian island of Lampedusa, making it a favoured stepping stone for refugees attempting the perilous sea journey from North Africa to Europe. However, Tunisia is struggling to contain the surge of refugees, and some morgues are running out of space to bury the victims. Faouzi Masmoudi, a justice official in Sfax, where the central morgue for an area of around a million people is sited, said that “on Tuesday, we had more than 200 bodies, well beyond the capacity of the hospital, which creates a health problem”. He added that there is a problem with large numbers of corpses arriving on the shore, and that they don’t know who they are or what shipwreck they came from – and the number is increasing.
Funerals are taking place almost every day to reduce the pressure on hospitals, with at least 30 people buried on April 20 alone. DNA swabs are taken from each body before burial to help their possible identification by relatives. According to Romdhane Ben Amor of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), at least 220 dead and missing have been recorded this year to April 24, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa. More than three-quarters of refugees leaving Tunisia do so from the coast between Sfax and Mahdia, some 90km (55 miles) north.
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 came from Muslim-majority nations. The number of refugee departures has intensified after President Kais Saied made a speech on February 21 claiming that irregular immigration was a demographic threat to Tunisia. While many of the refugees 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.