Officials said an investigation was launched as the search was ongoing for 27 missing people.
At least 13 Sudanese asylum seekers have died after their boat capsized off the coast of Tunisia.
A Tunisian judicial official said on Thursday that 27 people were still missing after their boat sank on Wednesday, having set off from Jebiniana, a town near the Mediterranean port city of Sfax.
The boat was carrying 42 people, all of them Sudanese, and two people were rescued, said Farid Ben Jha, a court spokesperson in the coastal Tunisian city of Monastir.
The asylum seekers were likely “exploited in a human trafficking case or in the formation of a criminal group to reach Europe illegally”, he said, adding that an investigation was under way.
The boat was fragile and hastily made with metal scraps, according to the investigation’s initial findings.
All 42 people on the boat were asylum seekers registered with the United Nations refugee agency and were fleeing war-torn Sudan.
UN agencies have said that 10 months since the war broke out between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), half of Sudan’s population – some 25 million people – needs humanitarian assistance and protection. More than 1.5 million people have fled across Sudan’s borders to the Central African Republic, Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia and South Sudan.
Tunisia and Libya are the main departure points for thousands of people fleeing conflict and poverty from other parts of Africa and the Middle East who risk their lives to reach Europe.
Last week, a boat carrying 37 refugees and asylum seekers went missing off the coast of Sfax. The passengers were reported to be from the village of El Hancha in the Sfax governorate and ranged from about 13 to 35 years.
Their families held protests, erected roadblocks and burned tyres around the village, only retreating when the authorities assured them that the search efforts would continue.
During the first 11 months of 2023, Tunisian authorities said they intercepted 69,963 migrants, more than double the figure for the same period in 2022.
According to the International Organisation for Migration, more than 2,270 people died attempting to cross the central Mediterranean in 2023, which was a 60 percent increase from the previous year.