At least 20 African migrants were missing on Saturday after their boat sank off Tunisia as they tried to cross the Mediterranean to Italy, a judicial official said, amidst a sharp rise in migrant boats from the North African country.
The coast guard rescued 17 others off the southern city of Sfax from the same boat, two of whom are in critical condition, Sfax court judge Faouzi Masmousdi said.
In recent weeks, dozens have gone missing and died in repeated drowning accidents off the Tunisian coast.
Tunisia has taken over from Libya as a main departure point for people fleeing poverty and conflict in Africa and the Middle East in the hope of a better life in Europe.
The National Guard said on Friday that more than 14,000 migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, were intercepted or rescued in the first three months of the year while trying to cross into Europe, five times more than figures recorded in the same period last year.
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said on Friday that Europe risks seeing a huge wave of migrants arriving on its shores from North Africa if financial stability in Tunisia is not safeguarded.
Meloni called on the IMF and other countries to help Tunisia quickly to avoid its collapse.
Tunisian Foreign Minister Nabil Ammar said last week the country needed funding and equipment to better protect its borders. Tunisia had received equipment from Italy in the past years, but Ammar said it was outdated and not sufficient.