Monday 15 October 2018

At least 48 migrants die off Tunisia as captain flees his sinking boat

Refugee warning: Italy’s new interior minister Matteo Salvini
Refugee warning: Italy’s new interior minister Matteo Salvini

Tarek Amara

At least 48 migrants were killed when their boat sank off Tunisia's southern coast and 67 others were rescued by the coast guard in one of the worst migrant boat accidents in recent years.

At least 48 migrants were killed when their boat sank off Tunisia's southern coast and 67 others were rescued by the coast guard in one of the worst migrant boat accidents in recent years.

The migrants were of Tunisian and other nationalities, according to authorities.

Human traffickers increasingly use Tunisia as a launch pad for migrants heading to Europe as Libya's coastguard, aided by armed groups, has tightened controls.

Security officials said the boat was packed with about 180 migrants, including 80 from other African countries.

A survivor said the captain had abandoned the boat after it started sinking in order to escape arrest by the coastguard.

"I survived by clinging to wood for nine hours," he said at a hospital in the southern city of Sfax, where dozens of people gathered to look for survivors and identify dead relatives.

Unemployed Tunisians and other Africans often try to depart in makeshift boats from Tunisia to Sicily in Italy.

The North African country is in the middle of a deep economic crisis since the toppling of autocrat Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 threw Tunisia into turmoil, with unemployment and inflation shooting up.

Separately, nine people, including six children, died on Sunday after a speedboat carrying 15 refugees sank off the coast of Turkey's southern province of Antalya, the Turkish coastguard said.

Meanwhile, Matteo Salvini, Italy's new interior minister, has declared that the country can no longer serve as "Europe's refugee camp" as he pledged to press EU officials for asylum law reform.

During a visit to a migrant reception centre in the southern Sicilian port of Pozzallo, the leader of the far-Right League party said the shipwrecks off Tunisia and Turkey could have been prevented.

"Every life is sacre; to save lives, you have to stop the departures of these death boats, which is a lucrative business for some and a disgrace for the rest of the world," said Mr Salvini.

He was sworn in as interior minister on Friday as part of the new populist government formed by the Northern League and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement.

The attempt to shape the migration issue around saving lives was a shift in rhetoric for the firebrand, who rose to power on an anti-immigration promise to boot out more than 500,000 people with a "kick in the arse".

On Saturday, he told a rally in the north: "The good times for illegals is over - get ready to pack your bags."

However, while softening his delivery for a European audience, his message in advance of an EU meeting on asylum policy tomorrow was unchanged.

"Fewer landings and more expatriations. It is not a hard line, just common sense," said Mr Salvini.

After nearly three months of political chaos, leaders of Italy's coalition were eager to show they are ready to work.

Luigi Di Maio, the leader of Five Star Movement, posted a video of himself settling into his new office, while Giuseppe Conte, the prime minister-designate, took calls from fellow European leaders, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, who invited him to Berlin for talks.

Irish Independent

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