Authorities in Tunisia say its navy had rescued 178 migrants who were trying to cross the Mediterranean from Libya to reach Europe.
The country’s defence ministry in a statement on Sunday said two bodies were recovered and 178 migrants rescued during three operations off Tunisia’s south coast.
The migrants, who the ministry said were from Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Ivory Coast, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Mali and Ethiopia, had set off from the Libyan port of Zuwara overnight Friday to Saturday.
Authorities had on Thursday intercepted 267 would-be migrants who had also begun the sea crossing from Libya, most of them Bangladeshis, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said.
Red Crescent official Mongi Slim warned Thursday that centres set up to house migrants in southern Tunisia were full.
According to IOM figures, more than 1,000 migrants hoping to reach Europe had set off from Libya and ended up in Tunisia since January, and the number of departures is rising.
In late May, the European Union’s Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson travelled to Tunisia to discuss a deal on migration with the country’s authorities.
“The EU must work with partner countries to reduce irregular departures, manage migration and examine reasons that cause, particularly economic consequences of the pandemic,” Johansson said in a tweet ahead of her trip.
Under the deal, Tunisia would be offered economic assistance by Brussels in exchange for stopping migrant boats from leaving its shores.
Italy has pledged to commit up to 200 million euros to finance development projects in Tunisia as part of a cooperation agreement between the two countries. The funds are meant to incentivize Tunis to keep its borders shut.
The EU is also discussing a similar deal with Libya.
President Kais Saied met with European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in Brussels in early June.
On June 1, the EU announced that it had disbursed 300 million euros in macro-financial assistance to Tunisia.
There have been 11,000 departures from January to April 2021 from Libya, over 70 per cent more than in the same period last year, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR.
The agency said the “deteriorating” conditions of migrants in Libya were pushing many to make the dangerous crossing from the North African coast to Europe.
According to the UN, at least 760 people have died trying to make the Mediterranean crossing between January 1 and May 31.