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UN: More than 2,500 people died or went missing crossing Mediterranean in 2023

At least 186,000 people crossed the Mediterranean between January and August this year, according to UN refugee agency

People in a makeshift boat heading for Italy are intercepted by Tunisian authorities off the coast of Sfax, on 4 October 2022 (AFP)

From January to August this year, more than 2,500 people died or went missing trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, the UN's refugee agency said on Thursday.

Ruven Menikdiwela, director of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), also told the UN Security Council that 186,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean so far this year. 

Tunisia and Libya were the main departure hotspots for those seeking to make the journey.

More than 102,000 people departing from Tunisia have attempted to cross the sea towards Europe in 2023 to date, a 260 percent increase on last year.

At least 45,000 people have sought to make the dangerous crossing from Libya.

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Of the 186,000 people who crossed the Mediterranean, more than 80 percent landed in Italy. The rest landed in Greece, Spain, Cyprus and Malta. 

Menikdiwela told a council meeting called by Russia on migration to Europe that the high departure rates from Tunisia “result from the perception of insecurity among refugee communities, following incidents of racially motivated attacks and hate speech, as well as collective expulsions from Libya and Algeria."

Earlier this year Tunisian President Kais Saied linked people from sub-Saharan Africa in the country to criminality, in comments that were widely denounced as racist. 

“There has been a criminal plan since the beginning of the century to change the demographic structure of Tunisia and there are parties that received large sums of money after 2011 for the settlement of illegal immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa,” Saied said. 

In Libya, where there are nearly 50,000 refugees and asylum seekers registered with the UNHCR, “the conditions of thousands of refugees and migrants in both official and unofficial detention facilities… remains of grave concern,” said Menikdiwela. 

Earlier this week, Human Rights Watch (HRW) called the European Union’s decision to release $135m in migrant control assistance to Tunisia “terrible for human rights”.

Last week, the European Commission announced the payment, which came after a controversial deal it signed with the North African country in July.

The decision by the EU was made “despite an absence of any specific human rights guarantees for migrants and asylum seekers”, said HRW.

Moreover, the deal risked making the EU “complicit in abuses” carried out by Tunisian authorities.

Migrant abuse 

The financial assistance is meant to prop up Tunisia's crisis-hit economy and help the country stop refugees from heading to Europe. More than 10,000 refugees have arrived at the Italian island of Lampedusa in recent weeks.

Italy's right-wing prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, has been pushing the EU to fulfil the agreement brokered by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in July.

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Middle East Eye reported earlier this month that Sub-Saharan Africans in Tunisia are increasingly being denied emergency food and water supplies in the government's latest move to crack down on migration at the behest of Saied.

The plight of migrants, mainly from Sub-Saharan countries, is the "worst" in modern Tunisian history, Nicholas Noe, a senior visiting fellow at Refugees International, told MEE.

In July, HRW reported that the Tunisian police, military, national guard and coastguard have been involved in grave violations against Black Africans.

Beatings, use of excessive force, some cases of torture, arbitrary arrests and detention, collective expulsions, dangerous actions at sea, forced evictions and theft of money and belongings are all examples of abuses documented by HRW.

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