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Tunisians hold demonstrations over missing migrants

By AFP - Oct 18,2022 - Last updated at Oct 18,2022

A woman holds up a sign reading in Arabic ‘I lived a foreigner and was buried a foreigner’ and in Arabic, French, and English ‘state crime’, as locals of the coastal city of Zarzis in southeastern Tunisia gather in the city centre on Tuesday (AFP photo)

ZARZIS, Tunisia — Thousands of Tunisians demonstrated and a general strike shut down the coastal city of Zarzis on Tuesday to demand a renewed search for relatives who went missing during a September migration attempt.

The city has been rocked by days of protests also fuelled by anger over the burial of four people, suspected of being missing Tunisians, in a nearby cemetery for foreign migrants — allegedly without efforts to identify them.

The powerful UGTT trade union federation voiced support for the strike and demanded an inquiry into the rescue effort and how the bodies were buried.

Tuesday's protests come four weeks after 18 Tunisians boarded a boat headed for Italy, joining tens of thousands of clandestine migrants who have attempted to reach Europe in recent years — many of them Tunisians exhausted by a chronic economic crisis.

Zarzis residents have been angered by reports that authorities buried four bodies found at sea — believed to be passengers from the boat — in a nearby cemetery for foreign migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, whose bodies regularly wash up along the coast after similar tragedies.

Those bodies have since been exhumed for identification, while another two bodies believed to be Tunisians have been found.

That would leave 12 passengers from the boat still missing.

Media reports said as many as 4,000 protesters, including relatives of the missing, marched along the city's main street, many holding up pictures of lost loved ones or signs saying "we want the truth".

Shops and government offices were closed, along with health services, except for emergency cases.

On Tuesday, President Kais Saied asked Justice Minister Leila Jaffel to open an investigation “so that Tunisians can know the full truth and who was behind these tragedies”.

The Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH) said authorities had “not devoted the necessary resources to search and rescue operations in a timely way” and called for an inquiry into the burials.

The North African country has a long Mediterranean coast, in places just 130 kilometres from the Italian island of Lampedusa.

Despite generally favourable weather from spring to autumn, the voyages on barely seaworthy boats often end in tragedy.

Earlier this month, AFP journalists saw the coastguard intercepting migrants aboard overcrowded boats.

Tunisian authorities intercepted nearly 200 migrants attempting to reach Europe over the weekend, the defence ministry said on Tuesday.

According to official figures, more than 22,500 migrants have been intercepted since the start of the year, around half of them from sub-Saharan Africa.

 

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