At least 264 Bangladeshis were rescued in the Mediterranean off the Tunisian coast on Thursday when they were trying to sail across the sea to Europe, according to the Bangladesh embassy in Libya.
They were among 267 people found adrift in the sea which is widely used by traffickers as a route for illegal migration from North African countries to rich European countries, including Italy, Greece and Spain.
It was unclear which European country the migrants had intended to enter.
Tunisia's coastguard said the migrants, including three Egyptians, had been stranded at sea after their boat broke down, reports AFP.
Asaduzzaman Kabir, labour welfare counsellor at the Bangladesh embassy in Tripoli, yesterday said they were in constant contact with International Organisation for Migration (IOM), International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and other local authorities in Tunisia regarding the wellbeing of the Bangladeshis.
Azzouz Samri, IOM's chief of mission in Tunisia, said: "We received a call from the authorities to assist a group of 267 people rescued at sea ... They were rescued and brought by the Tunisian national coast guard to the port of EĹ Ketef at Ben Guerdane locality. The IOM team in Tunisia provided food and medical assistance at the port, provided transport to a centre identified by the authorities for the confinement period of five days. The IOM Tunisia is also doing the Covid-19 RT-PCR test for the rescued."
After being rescued, the Bangladeshi migrants were put in quarantine in Tunisia, Kabir told this newspaper over the phone.
He said Bangladesh does not have a mission in Tunisia, but the mission in Libya provides consular services there.
The embassy official said they would be able to meet the rescued Bangladeshis once their quarantine, which may take up to a week, ends.
The boat carrying the migrants might have started its journey off the Libyan coast on Wednesday, Kabir added.
With the latest incident, at least 485 Bangladeshi migrants heading for Europe were rescued off the Tunisian coast in the last 90 days, said sources at the Bangladesh embassy.
Some 221 Bangladeshis were rescued in the Mediterranean in last three or four incidents between May 18 and June 24, said the labour welfare counsellor.
Voicing concern over the recent incidents of rescuing Bangladeshis in the Mediterranean, Shakirul Islam, chairperson of Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Programme, said when the pathway to regular labour migration is closed or shrunken, many resort to irregular ways of entering a country.
Also, human trafficking groups become active and take advantage of the situation.
Shakirul said as labour migration from Bangladesh largely remained stalled since the pandemic hit the country last year, chances were there that such incidents would occur.
"I think the latest incident is such an example," he said, adding that migrant rights groups have been voicing concern since last year over occurrence of such incidents.
He said since Bangladesh does not have a regular labour market in Europe, there is little chance that the incidents in the Mediterranean have correlation with the country's labour migration.
Citing Tunisian coastguard, AFP reports that Tunisian navy helped bring the rescued migrants to shore at Ben Guerdane port in southern Tunisia, near the border with Libya, and they were handed over to the IOM and the Red Crescent.
The migrants were placed in quarantine at a hotel on the Tunisian island of Djerba, the IOM said.
According to IOM figures, more than 1,000 migrants, hoping to reach Europe, had set off from Libya and ended up in Tunisia since January, and the number of departures is rising.
There have been 11,000 departures from Libya from January to April this year, over 70 percent more than in the same period last year, according to UN refugee agency UNHCR.
The agency said the "deteriorating" conditions of migrants in Libya and Tunisia are pushing many to make the dangerous crossing from the North African coast to Europe.
Red Crescent official Mongi Slim said centres set up to house migrants in Tunisia are full.
According to the UN, at least 760 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean between January 1 and May 31, compared with 1,400 last year.
Migrants who set out on sea journeys off the Libyan or Tunisian coast mainly try to reach Italy. Boats carrying migrants heading for Italy often set off from Libya but cross the Mediterranean near Tunisian coast.
According to data of Tunisian National Guard, some 308 attempts of illegal migration towards Italy were halted till May 31 this year. About 4,376 people, including 2,531 foreigners, were rescued during these operations.