At least 100 people are believed to have died after a boat carrying migrants sank off the coast of Tunisia on Saturday, the highest death toll in any single migration attempt this year, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) announced Tuesday.
By Tuesday morning, the Tunisian coast guard had recovered 51 bodies and rescued 68 people, according to the country’s interior ministry, which estimates that 180 people were on board. The remaining missing people are presumed dead — causing Monday’s initial death toll of 48 to rise significantly.
The boat was 16 nautical miles off the Sfax coast — 170 miles south of the capital Tunis — when it sent a distress signal at 10:45 p.m. local time (5.45 p.m. ET) on Saturday, the interior ministry said.
Wael Ferjani, a Tunisian man who survived the wreck, told AFP that the boat’s capacity was “75 to 90 people maximum, but we were between 180 and 190 on board.”
“Water was coming into the boat,” he said. “Those who could escape fled, others drowned. We stayed there until almost 5 a.m., then fishermen came to help us, and then the army arrived.”
The migrants reportedly paid 2,000 to 3,000 Tunisian dinars ($780 to $1,170) for the crossing, according to Lorena Lando, IOM chief of mission in Tunisia. The “fragile and overloaded” fishing boat began taking on water two hours after leaving the coast of the Kerkennah Islands, near Sfax, IOM said Tuesday.
Around 120 people in the boat were Tunisian, according to Lando. Several people from sub-Saharan Africa as well as Libyans and Moroccans are among the survivors. Some of the dead are yet to be identified.
“There are no words to describe this tragedy,” said Lando. “Behind these numbers, men, women and children have lost their lives while pursuing an uncertain dream.”