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Tunisia rounds up migrants at sea in unprecedented numbers

 A young man wearing a baseball cap emblazoned with “Dior," women clutching babies wrapped in blankets, children bundled in winter coats. All gingerly stepped from rickety boats into the sturdy craft of the Tunisian Maritime National Guard — and away from their dreams of life in Europe.

Cold, wet and heartbroken, they are among hundreds caught daily in overnight sweeps for migrant boats on the Mediterranean Sea.

“Sit down! Sit down! Sit down!” The shouted order confirmed the group was no longer in charge of their destiny. A woman sobbed.

On an overnight expedition with the National Guard last week, The Associated Press witnessed migrants pleading to continue their journeys to Italy in unseaworthy vessels, some taking on water. Over 14 hours, 372 people were plucked from the fragile boats.

Migrants, mainly from sub-Saharan Africa, are undertaking the perilous journey in unprecedented numbers. In the first three months of this year, 13,000 migrants were forced from their boats off the eastern Tunisian port city of Sfax, the main launching point. Between 2021 and 2022, the number of migrants heading to Europe, mostly to Italy but also to Malta, nearly doubled.

In a single day in March, a record 2,900 migrants were stopped in the Sfax region, which also includes the coastal city of Mahdia and the Kerkennah Islands, off the Sfax coast, said National Guard Brig. Gen. Sabeur Younes.

Migration to Europe has been on an upward climb, peaking in 2022 to 189,620, according to the International Organization for Migration. That's the most since 2016, when close to 400,000 left their homelands, and one year after more than 1 million people, mostly Syrians fleeing war, sought refuge in 2015.

For many sub-Saharan Africans — who don't need a visa to travel to Tunisia — the North African country serves as a stepping stone to Europe, while others come from Libya, which shares a border with Tunisia.

Each night, National Guard vessels comb the waters. Pulling up the dead is the grimmest part of the job. The Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights said that 580 migrants died or disappeared at sea in 2022.

This week, Sfax officials were rushing to bury some 90 bodies washed up on beaches in the Sfax region in recent days, the official TAP news agency reported Tuesday. The morgue at the main hospital is full, making burials critical. No deaths or disappearances were reported the night the AP was present.

The groups of people plucked from the water during numerous sorties by small crafts are collected on a waiting National Guard mother ship and returned to Sfax.

Considered victims, not lawbreakers, those stopped en route are set free at the port, many to try again.

As of Monday, 36,610 migrants — including 2,882 Tunisians — had reached Italy since the start of the year. That is about four times the number who arrived in each of the two previous years, the Italian Interior Ministry said. Many head to Lampedusa, an island south of Sicily, some 180 kilometers (110 miles) from Sfax, a voyage that requires large measures of desperation and bravado.

“We are ready to drown and die to improve our situation,” said a Syrian who identified himself only as Mohamed, fearful like many migrants caught at sea of revealing his full name. “You know the situation in Syria, war and instability,” he said, adding that he had lost four family members in the war.

Italy is trying to stem the flow from Tunisia, and stabilize the North African country in the midst of its deepest economic crisis in a generation, with growing social and political tensions. This month Rome declared a state of emergency to help cope with the influx, then sweetened pressure on Tunisia, vowing a host of investments plus help in tough negotiations for an International Monetary Fund loan.

But those incentives won’t stop the recent, furious drive by people from sub-Saharan Africa and a booming business in cheaper metal boats that have fed the surge in migration from Tunisia.

Sub-Saharan Africans, some living illegally in Tunisia for years and working at low wages, began trying to make a quick exit after Tunisia's increasingly authoritarian President Kais Saied demanded urgent measures in February to crack down on Black Africans, claiming they are part of a plot to erase his country’s identity. Some countries airlifted their citizens back home.

Many sub-Saharan Africans looked toward Europe as a getaway.

“If a Black man does something bad in Tunisia, then Tunisians see us all as bad and chase us away,” said a man from Ivory Coast who refused to give his name over concerns about the tense situation for Black Africans in Tunisia. “It’s not logical. We are all humans.”

Younes, the National Guard chief, suggested that the furor over sub-Saharan Africans contributed to increased attempted crossings. “After what happened, voila. They no longer have the means to stay here,” he said. “They’ll try everything to get to the other side.”

But another factor has enticed people to risk their lives for Europe.

Flimsy, hand-made metal boats — cheaper but less stable than wooden vessels — began appearing on the seas last year and quickly became a flourishing business. The boats are made clandestinely in the Sfax region.

Arrests are made, “but unfortunately there are always other artisans to build them,” Younes said.

Even foreigners are being recruited, like Egyptians to do the welding, he said. But only a fine awaits boat builders who are caught because officials have so far failed to establish a link with smugglers.

For the National Guard official, a critical link with Italy is missing.

“We need direct contact with the Italians for boats that risk sinking” but have exited Tunisia’s zone of rescue, Younes said, rejecting suggestions Tunisia is not doing enough to stopped the influx of migrants.

For the migrants, Tunisia is already doing too much — dashing their dreams.

“We want to leave Tunisia! Let us die at sea. It’s our choice,” cried out some forced off the boats. “It’s our destiny.”

Among those removed was an infant bundled in a camouflage fleece suit, her head covered by a hat with kitty ears, seemingly dressed for a special event that was abruptly canceled by the National Guard. ___

Ganley reported from Paris. Bouazza Ben Bouazza in Tunis, Tunisia, contributed.

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