Latest deaths come as Italian media report that a record 2,000 refugees and migrants had arrived in Lampedusa within 24 hours.
At least 19 refugees and migrants from sub-Saharan Africa have drowned off the coast of Tunisia while trying to cross the Mediterranean and reach Italy, according to a human rights group.
Reports of the deaths came early on Sunday as Italy’s ANSA news agency said more than 2,000 asylum seekers had arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa within 24 hours.
The agency described the arrivals on Saturday as a “record”.
Romdhane Ben Amor, an official at the Forum for Social and Economic Rights (FTDES), told the Reuters news agency that the deaths occurred when a boat carrying the refugees and migrants sank off the coast of Tunisia’s Mahdia after a journey that started from Sfax beaches.
He said the Tunisian coast guard was able to rescue five people from the boat.
Tunisian authorities were not immediately available for comment.
In the last four days, at least five boats carrying refugees and migrants have sunk off the southern city of Sfax, leaving 67 missing and nine dead.
The coast guard previously said it had stopped about 80 boats heading for Italy in the past four days and detained more than 3,000 people, mostly from sub-Saharan African countries.
The coast near Sfax has become a major departure point for people fleeing poverty and conflict in Africa and the Middle East in the hope of a better life in Europe.
The latest disaster comes amid a campaign of arrests by Tunisian authorities of undocumented sub-Saharan Africans.
According to United Nations data, at least 12,000 people who reached Italy this year set sail from Tunisia, compared with 1,300 in the same period of 2022.
Previously, Libya was the main departure point for refugees and migrants.
According to FTDES statistics, Tunisia’s coast guard prevented more than 14,000 refugees and migrants from setting off in boats during the first three months of this year, compared with 2,900 during the same period last year.
The Italian coast guard said on Thursday it had rescued about 750 asylum seekers in two operations off the southern Italian coast.
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said on Friday that Europe risks seeing a huge wave of refugees and migrants arriving on its shores from North Africa if financial stability in Tunisia is not safeguarded.
Meloni called on the International Monetary Fund and some countries to help Tunisia quickly to avoid its collapse.