11,000 refugees and asylum seekers are registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Tunisia, according to official data last updated on September 25 this year. Their main countries of origin are Syria, Côte d’Ivoire, Sudan, Cameroon, Eritrea, and Somalia. Most of these migrants are staying in the suburbs of Tunis, as well as the coastal towns and cities of Medenine, Sfax, Ariana, and Sousse. However, many also transit through Tunisia, after crossing either the Libyan or the Algerian border, without seeking official registration with the UNHCR. These undocumented migrants make their way to the same towns and cities, where they wait to embark for Europe.
Whether or not they are officially granted refugee status, almost none of these migrants, especially those from sub-Saharan Africa, plan to settle in Tunisia. Indeed, they have this in common with many young Tunisians who wish to flee the country’s current recession. Between January 1 and September 24 of this year, 186,000 people crossed the Mediterranean and landed on the shores of Italy, Greece, Spain, Cyprus, and Malta. According to the Italian Ministry of the Interior, 139,049 people have come to Italy this way in 2023 as of October 12, compared to 74,622 between January and October the previous year. About 102,000 of these migrants came from Tunisia, making it the prime country for the departure of refugees, newly ahead of Libya.
“Our country has become the main departure point for the Italian shores and therefore for Europe,” says Mostafa Abdelkebir, president of the Tunisian Observatory of Human Rights, which is currently monitoring the border with Libya, near the town of Ra’s Ajdir. “We are talking about Tunisian citizens who want to leave recession and unemployment behind, but also a growing number of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. This year, the National Guard has ramped up border control, intercepting more than 20,000 people who were about to embark or had just done so. 65 percent were sub-Saharan Africans.”
The official “figures” do not include those who die in shipwrecks, some of whose bodies are never recovered. Tunisia, a country of transit, is struggling to cope with the increasing influx of people, and indeed its system for dealing with immigration is severely lacking. Even migrants who are officially registered with the UNHCR, and who therefore have a card that allows them to move freely within the country’s borders, receive a weekly allowance of no more than 30 dinars, the equivalent of 10 euros, with which they are expected to buy enough food to last a week. There are no accommodation centers, and initial aid is left in the hands of the Red Crescent, which lacks the resources to reach the more remote areas, such as the desert on the border with Algeria, and Doctors Without Borders, which periodically visit some of the encampments where migrants find shelter shortly after entering the country. All other aid consists of private donations of water, food, clothing and blankets.
“Those who cross the Libyan border and reach Ben Gardane receive initial assistance from the Red Crescent,” says Abdelkebir. “Women and children may claim a place in dedicated structures in Medenine and Tataouine, while everyone else goes where they want because there is no official shelter. Those who can afford it immediately find a house to rent, while others look for work first and a house later, but the problem is that none of the sub-Saharan Africans who come to Tunisia intend to stay, which complicates their insertion into society. Some families refuse to send their children to school for fear that they will be forced to stay in the country. The same happens with work, which is almost always illegal, often because people lack the proper documentation, but also because many documented migrants are afraid that signing a contract might prevent them from leaving the country.”
In Sfax, the country’s second largest city and its main industrial center, not to mention the departure point for 50 percent of sea voyages, a particularly lucrative marker has emerged for renting homes to migrants, where landlords have begun to charge per person.
“It’s difficult to estimate the numbers in this city, because as soon as one sub-Saharan citizen gets on a boat and leaves, another one takes their place,” says Noman Mezid, a lawyer who has co-founded a legal and humanitarian support network for migrants. “However, new arrivals have definitely increased exponentially over the last eight months, which has exacerbated social pressure in working-class neighborhoods on the periphery, where living conditions were already difficult. Many have tried to make as much money as possible from renting, taking advantage of the fact that migrants tend to rent houses in groups of ten or more, hoping to share the costs. But there are also those who have become homeless after the demonstrations and clashes of the Summer, and are still sleeping in the squares of the city center or under trees in the suburbs.”
Apart from providing initial assistance to migrants, Mezid’s network also reports on the National Guard’s mistreatment of migrants. “Fortunately, this is not a systemic problem,” says Mezid, “but rather the occasional consequence of incompetence and lack of planning. See, for example, those recent expulsions, when a few dozen people were led to the border with Libya.”
As they do at every stop along their route, migrants look for work once they arrive in Tunisia, hoping to be able to make a living and save enough for passage to Europe. This can cost up to 3,000 dinars, the equivalent of just under 900 euros. It takes most people several months to gather such a sum, because Tunisian wages are low: even a bank director’s average salary corresponds to about 600 euros.
Those who cannot find legal or illegal employment, usually as a labourer or an agricultural worker, often become involved in organized crime, usually drug trafficking or prostitution rings. In the worst cases, migrants can become involved in the international organ trade. “In August, near Kasserine, five people were detained for involving migrants in organ trafficking,” says Mezid. “They would take migrants to Turkey for surgery, promising documents for travel into Europe in return.”
The increase of departures from Tunisia has alarmed the EU, especially Italy. On July 16, the EU signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Tunisian President Kais Saied. The memorandum’s stated aim is to create a strategic partnership founded on five pillars: macroeconomic stability, trade, green energy transition, people-to-people contacts, and migration and mobility. Moreover, all parties agreed to cooperate in the reinforcement of Tunisia’s borders and the fight against people smugglers. Alongside these key points, the EU also pledged 1 billion euros: 105 million for border reinforcement, 150 million for direct budgetary support, and 900 million euros for macroeconomic aid, subject to an agreement with the International Monetary Fund on Tunisia’s debt.
However, it is by no means certain that the memorandum will be honored. Mere months after its signing, Saied rejected the EU’s first installment of financial aid. He called the amount “derisory” and claimed it violated the spirit of the memorandum. Meanwhile, EU Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly launched a human rights probe into the agreements.
Indeed, despite the memorandum’s inclusion of a section on migration and mobility, Tunisia does not plan to institute a governmental system for the processing of migrants. Moreover, the National Guard blatantly violated migrants’ rights on a number of recent occasions, such as forcibly moving migrants to an area near the Libyan border and allowing dozens of people to remain stuck in the militarized zone between the two countries, though the latter situation was eventually resolved through compromise with Libya. O’Reilly has therefore asked the EU Commission to review the impact of the memorandum on human rights, should it become definitive, as well as to periodically revise the deal accordingly.
At the same time, President Saied has stated that he does not intend to barter his country’s sovereignty in exchange for financial aid, and insists that the disbursement of funds be unconditional, with no expectation that they be used specific projects. This makes it even less likely for the memorandum’s utopian vision of agreement between all parties to become reality.
The first piece in our coverage on Tunisian migration: here.
All the pictures have been shot by Ilaria Romano. All rights are reserved.
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