Dozens feared dead as migrant boat capsizes off Tunisia


As many as 70 migrants trying to reach Europe from Libya drowned Friday when their boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, and at least 16 other people from the boat were rescued, according to United Nations migration officials and Tunisia's state news agency.

The vessel capsized about 40 nautical miles off the coast of Sfax, some 270 kilometres south of Tunis.

A statement from the Tunisian defence ministry reportedly said the navy had despatched a ship as soon as it heard about the incident and came across a fishing boat picking up survivors.

There were 16 survivors, according to the United Nations refugee agency.

The state-run Tunis Afrique Presse agency gave a death toll of at least 70 people. It said 443 people have reportedly died on risky Mediterranean Sea crossings so far this year, compared to 620 deaths for the same period in 2018.

"This is a tragic and bad reminder of the risks still faced by those who attempt to cross the Mediterranean", said UNHCR Special Envoy for the Mediterranean Vincent Cochetel.

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Tunisia's defense ministry said that the boat had left the western Libyan port of Zouara on Thursday, intending to reach Italy, Reuters reported.

The passengers are understood to have been from sub-Saharan Africa.

This comes after last week, the Libyan Coast Guard stated that it has saved over 90 migrants who were attempting to reach Europe illegally.

The IOM official said the migrants were being questioned and cared for by Tunisian authorities.

But since mid-2017, the number of migrant journeys has declined dramatically.

In the first three months of 2019, some 15,900 refugees and migrants arrived in Europe via the three Mediterranean routes - a 17% decrease on the same period in 2018.