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Tunisia facing unprecedented migration crisis

STORY: This boat — packed with migrants — is attempting to slip away from Tunisia towards the possibility of a better life in Europe.

It’s dark. Dangerous.

And the country's coastguard is closing in on the passengers, who have little more than inner tubes to keep them safe.

The scene is emblematic of what officials describe as an explosion in the number of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean from Tunisia.

In the first four months of 2022, the coastguard stopped 3,000 people at sea.

In the same time period this year, that number spiked to 17,000.

While it does coincide with an overall rise in the number of people trying to cross the sea… a government crackdown on migrants has accelerated the surge from Tunisia.

President Kais Saied announced the crackdown in February, with language the African Union described as “racialized hate speech.”

Many migrants say they’ve been subject to racist attacks.

And that comes after fleeing war or natural disasters.

“We see the wrath of people has become more than the wrath of God,” says this man from Syria, describing the conflict there.

Meanwhile, the National Guard says confrontations at sea are becoming more threatening.

Officials say people jump in the water, or threaten to set themselves on fire to avoid capture.

On one boat, Reuters saw migrants throwing metal bars at the coast guard.

On another, the coast guard was seen disabling the engine by smashing it - a dangerous tactic, criticized by migrant groups.

The rise in attempted crossings is unfolding as the price of them drops.

It used to cost around $1,600 to get to Italy.

Now - it’s just over $300.

Houssem Eddine Jebabli is with the Tunisian National Guard.

"We have noticed that the migrants from sub-Saharan Africa used to have Tunisian organizers dealing with them in terms of providing boats, providing engines, preparing the ship captain, and then the migration process. Now there are organizers and middlemen from sub-Saharan Africa, and they are making or purchasing boats with engines by themselves."

The human cost can be much higher.

Bodies wash up on the beaches in the port city of Sfax.

Its main hospital is storing hundreds of them - some stacked in the hallways, or outside the building.

Plans are in the works for a new cemetery - just for migrants - the regional health chief says, with dozens being buried each day.

Still, despite the danger, some migrants say they’re undeterred from trying again.

"Yes it's true the risk is great but it takes risk to get what you want. I have no choice, I have no choice."