At least five African migrants have died and 28 are missing after a boat sank off Tunisia while trying to cross the Mediterranean to Italy, an official at a Tunisian rights group said.

Reuters quoted Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights official Ramadan Ben Amor as saying that the Tunisian coastguard had rescued five migrants on board the boat that sank off the coast of the southern city of Sfax and that they were in a bad mental state.

The boat set off from the coast of the eastern province of Sfax on Tuesday towards the Italian coast and was carrying 38 migrants, mostly from Ivory Coast, before sinking "due to its large load", the same source told AFP.

Tunisian authorities were not immediately available for comment on the incident.

The coast of Sfax has become a major launching pad for boat journeys carrying people fleeing poverty and conflict in Africa and the Middle East in the hope of a better life in Europe.

The incident comes amid a surge in the number of migrant boats from the Tunisian coast to Italy and amid a campaign by Tunisian authorities to track down sub-Saharan African migrants staying in Tunisia illegally.

Tunisia has more than 21,<> migrants of these nationalities, including students, according to official statistics.

Unofficial UN data indicate that 12,300 of those who arrived in Italy this year sailed from Tunisia, compared to 2022,<> in the same period in <>, repeating a previous pattern in which Libya was the main departure point
for migrants.

Happy decision

Tunisian President Kais Saied said last month that waves of illegal migration from sub-Saharan Africa were a "conspiracy" aimed at changing Tunisia's demographics. The comments were widely criticized
by rights groups and the African Union.

Saied ordered Tunisian forces to stem the flow of illegal migrants from sub-Saharan African countries into the country.

A senior UN official noted that the decision forced many to flee Tunisia, even if they had no intention of making the perilous journey to Europe.

Tunisia is suffering its worst financial crisis as negotiations with the International Monetary Fund over a loan stalled amid international fears of default, raising concern in Europe, especially Italy, near the Tunisian coast.

Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani told Reuters his country wanted the International Monetary Fund to release a $1.9 billion loan to Tunisia as it feared a lack of cash could destabilize it and trigger a new wave of migrants to Europe.