The Tunisian coastguard said Sunday it had intercepted overnight more than 400 migrants trying to reach Europe by sea in 16 separate operations off the North African country's coast.

"During the night between February 18 and 19, coastguard units in the centre, north and south managed to thwart 16 attempted crossings and rescue 423 people," the agency said in a statement posted on its official Facebook page.

It added the migrants include 71 Tunisians and 352 people from sub-Saharan African countries.

Tunisia, which at points is less that 150 kilometres from the Italian island of Lampedusa, is a key departure point for Tunisian and other African migrants seeking better lives in Europe.

Tunisia is struggling with a grinding economic crisis that has seen a growing wave of clandestine migration attempts in recent months, involving not just young people frustrated by a lack of jobs, but in some cases whole families.

Rome says more than 32,000 migrants, including 18,000 Tunisians, reached Italy from Tunisia last year, while thousands more have departed from neighbouring Libya.

The Tunisian coastguard reported on Friday a spike in crossing attempts due to calm seas.

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us