At least 39 migrants died when two boats sank off Tunisia on Tuesday as they tried to cross the Mediterranean to the Italian island of Lampedusa, the Tunisian defense ministry said.
The coastguard rescued 165 others, and searches for more survivors are still ongoing off the coast of Sfax, ministry spokesman Mohamed Zekri said. All the dead migrants were from sub-Saharan Africa, he added.
The coastline near the Tunisian port city of Sfax has become a major departure point for people fleeing conflict and poverty in Africa and the Middle East and seeking a better life in Europe.
In 2019, about 90 African migrants drowned when their boat capsized off the Tunisian coast after setting off for Europe from neighboring Libya, in one of the worst such disasters that Tunisian authorities have had to deal with.
The number of Tunisian migrants landing on Italian shores soared fivefold to 13,000 in 2020, a human rights group said, attributing the rise to economic hardship in Tunisia.