«My time in Tunisia, a day spent with boat-people traffickers and illegal immigrants»
A report by Elisa Pierandrei 21 March 2011

On the first floor of an attractive home with pale blue shutters, I sit surrounded by the women in this family. Tunis, who is about 25-years-old, gives me a glass of sage tea, while I play with her two children, Intisar and Saif. The younger women, TouTou, who is just 21, is instead chatting on Facebook with her fiancé who is a few years older than her and lives in Paris. They will marry in a year’s time. On this social network she shares not only dreams of a future with the man she loves, but also a video (made using a mobile phone) of their friends, treated as heroes, who have tried to complete the journey to Lampedusa (at least eighteen hours at sea on over-crowded boats).

I am in Zarzis, a small fishing harbour (110,000 inhabitants) on the southern coast of Tunisia, set between the tourist splendour of Djerba and the dark trafficking at the Libyan border. I am with the two respectable daughters of one of the local bosses involved in organizing the arrival of illegal immigrants on the Italian coast. We had met the previous day at a bar in the centre of the city. I told him I was a journalist and so he asked if I wanted to go on a journey to Lampedusa as two German colleagues had done a few days earlier. “No, not the journey. I don’t want to die at sea,” I answered. “But I would like to talk to the young men who want to leave.” After keeping me waiting for three hours, the boss, let us call him Mustafa, arrives at last to take me downstairs to meet the young people he has gathered in his home before handing them over to the boat-people traffickers. There are no soldiers to be seen, nor are there any police vehicles. Security is lax also due to the effort concentrated on refugees queuing at the Libyan border.

Those leaving from Zarzis are almost all young men, aged between 17 and 20. They are all Tunisians from surrounding areas. “How does one get from Lampedusa to Sicily?” asks one of them. I am under the impression that they leave knowing very little about what awaits them in Italy. They are carrying about 5,000 Tunisian dinars each, of which 3,000 (about 1,000 euros) will be paid those organizing their journey. “How does one get the permit that allows one to circulate freely in Italy for five days (does he mean deportation papers, I wonder? Editor’s Note)?”, asks another. After observing that I look really worried, a third young man reassures me. “I have a brother who will come from France to collect me. I had to borrow the money from my relatives and have promised to pay them back as soon as I get a job in Italy or in Europe.”

The reasons for journeys based on grounds I consider really desperate, are explained to me by another local boss whose name I was never told. “What makes them want to leave is the lack of jobs and the prospect of change for the future,” he says. “They want to leave at all costs. If they could get visas for Italy they would not undertake these dangerous voyages as illegal immigrants. And, above all, once they see what there is across the sea, they would be able to return to Tunisia!” The Jasmine Revolution that resulted in the downfall of the corrupt government led by President Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia, does not seem to have given hope to these young people who live far from the elegant capital, Tunis. “Young people nowadays are above all interested in money,” continues the local boss, “and here in Zarzis there is nothing at all for them. It’s a shame…Tunisia is a beautiful country. I am worried about the future, especially for my daughter’s future, since here in Zarzis she might no longer find a young man to marry.”

There were no foreigners among the young, and that night there were at least one hundred ready to leave, guests in various homes in the city. Egyptian, Bengali, Ghanaian, Vietnamese and Somali refugees are crowding Ra’s Jedir, at the border with Libya, and will very probably leave the country on ships (four have already left from Zarzis) or international flights from the nearby airport in Djerba, thanks to international humanitarian aid, led by Tunisia. “When the uprisings started in Tripoli, the Libyans came to get us in our homes,” says Ahmed, a Somali. “They held us in a house for a few days and then took us to the border.” According to Bashir, who is from Ghana, “before we got to the border they stole all our savings and even our mobile phones.” Another refugee from Bangladesh smiles ironically and says, “We hadn’t been paid for months anyway!”

Translated by Francesca Simmons