More than 200 migrants die off Tunisia in just 10 days

31 migrants 33 miles off the coast of Tunisia minutes before being brought to safety by the rescue team of the Basque NGO SMH on Wednesday 15 February

A group of migrants that were rescued off the Tunisian coast in February

Coastguards have recovered the bodies of 41 migrants off the Tunisian coast as the number of people dying as they try to reach Europe from Africa soars.

A senior official said more than 200 people had drowned in the last 10 days.

Tunisian morgues were running out of space and authorities were struggling to contain the surge in attempted crossings, he said.

The north African country has taken over from neighbouring Libya as the main embarkation point for migrants.

Parts of the Tunisian coastline are only about 150 kilometres from Lampedusa, an Italian island frequently used as a crossing point to the mainland.

“On Tuesday, we had more than 200 bodies, well beyond the capacity of the hospital, which creates a health problem,” said Faouzi Masmoudi, justice official in the port city of Sfax where the central morgue for an area of around a million people is sited.

“There is a problem with large numbers of corpses arriving on the shore. We don’t know who they are or what shipwreck they came from and the number is increasing.”

The UN’s migration agency said that when people departing from the Libyan coast were included, a total of nearly 300 people had died over the past week-and-a-half and 824 people had died so far this year.

But Tunisia is now the main departure point for people fleeing conflict and dire poverty in the Middle East and Africa.

Mr Masmoudi said funerals were held “almost every day to reduce the pressure on hospitals”.

He said DNA swabs are taken from each body before they are buried to help identification processes by relatives.

The retrieved bodies were in a decomposed state which suggested they were in the water for several days, a national guard official Houssem Eddine Jebabli, told Reuters news agency.

He said the cumulative total of fatalities was unprecedented over such a short period.

Tunisia has become a transit point for irregular migrants, mostly sub-Saharan Africans, who seek to reach Europe by sea.

There have been varying reports of the number of migrant deaths at sea, with the UN’s Missing Migrants Project saying 300 people had died in the Central Mediterranean in the last 10 days alone.

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