Tunisia has mounted a large-scale security operation to slow the high numbers of people being taken on the treacherous sea journey to Europe from its coast.
The clampdown, aimed at halting human traffickers and their illegal boat journeys, was mounted on Friday and Saturday in the coastal city of Sfax, a key launchpad for migrants heading to Italy, Tunisia’s state news agency TAP reported on Sunday.
News of the operation came the same weekend as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen toured the Italian island of Lampedusa, where an unprecedented increase in arrivals of migrants in recent days has prompted plans for expanded anti-smuggling measures.
Tunisia’s campaign resulted in two migration efforts from the North African country being foiled, according to spokesman for the Tunisian National Coastguard Houssem Jbebli. More than 200 Sub-Saharan Africans were stopped from taking the often deadly journeys over sea, while security officials seized six boats used in illegal migration, TAP quoted Jbebli as saying.
Tunisia’s Interior Ministry said the campaign came in response to instructions from President Kais Saied to halt an “unacceptable flow of illegal migrants.” The crackdown came as Italy reported a record of more than 5,100 migrants arriving on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa last Wednesday.
Because of its proximity to Sfax, Lampedusa has for years been one of the main destinations for migrants from North Africa seeking to reach European shores. “The security forces on Sunday evacuated a square where some 500 migrants were assembled in the centre of Sfax,” Romdane Ben Amor, spokesman for the FTDES non-government organisation, told AFP.
He said the migrants were “dispersed in small groups towards rural areas and other towns”. Since Saturday, authorities in Tunisia have been cracking down on illegal migrants, most of whom are from sub-Saharan African countries.
According to authorities, around 200 migrants “who were preparing to make the clandestine boat trip” towards Europe were arrested.
Tunisia is a major gateway for migrants and asylum-seekers attempting perilous sea voyages in hopes of a better life in the European Union.