Coronavirus pushes more Tunisians to risk all on crossing to Europe

With no tourists and economy still closed, number of people taking dangerous journey is up 400%

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Zarzis fishing port in eastern Tunisia sprawls out in every direction with all manner of craft jostling for berths among the vast network of wharves.

Hulking trawlers that spend weeks fishing the waters of the Mediterranean compete for space among the small traditional craft of local fishermen.

Now though, the boatmen of Zarzis are turning to a new trade – carrying Tunisians across the blue waters from North Africa for a new life in Europe.

In recent years, thousands of mainly sub-Saharan Africans have paid to be smuggled to the shores of the Mediterranean in Libya and Tunisia and made the perilous crossing to Europe.

Thousands have died on the way.

In the years after Tunisia’s 2011 uprising, the number of locals trying to cross fell to almost none. But the numbers began to increase after the country's economic downturn in 2017.

Now, Tunisians in large numbers are delivering their verdict on the country’s future in the most dramatic way available, by gambling all on a clandestine trip to Europe to build their lives afresh.

The numbers are stark. Italian authorities responsible for intercepting the boats from Tunisia say the first seven months of 2019 saw only 1,277 arrivals from Tunisia.

For the same period this year, that number was 6,628.

In July alone, as the seas calmed and the country’s lockdown measures eased, 4,252 people were intercepted by Italian authorities, up from only 502 in July 2019.

These figures do not include the "ghost landings" that elude authorities.

The Tunisian fishing town of Zarzis is a departure point for people seeking a better life in Europe. Simon Speakman Cordall for The National

Recent years have not been kind to Zarzis. Once a relatively prosperous tourist town, the instability after uprisings in Tunisia and in nearby Libya, just 80 kilometres away, saw the town’s resorts dropped from international itineraries.

Meanwhile, hotels nearby on Djerba Island limped through political crises and economic turmoil.

The coronavirus pandemic made the situation even more dire.

Despite avoiding the worst of the outbreak – Tunisia has recorded just over 1,700 cases and 52 deaths – the economic damage of lockdown, the loss of the tourism season and the global downturn will be critical.

The government’s figures show about 400,000 jobs could be lost in the tourism sector, with the results rippling throughout the Tunisian economy.

The IMF estimated in April that the country’s economy would shrink by 4.3 per cent because of the pandemic, with joblessness and social unrest inevitably set to follow.

Increasingly, Italian authorities are reporting that families and the middle class are among a tide that was dominated by young men hoping to establish themselves in Europe, before returning to Tunisia to build houses on land inherited from their families.

In early August, the Italian coastguard intercepted one group of 11 Tunisians dressed for their holidays, pulling wheeled trolleys, with one walking her poodle on a lead.

The images of those arriving in Europe have done little to endear Tunisians to a nation already reeling from the full force of the global pandemic.

A migrant woman wearing a straw hat is seen with other migrants from Tunisia and Lybia as they arrive onboard of an Italian Guardia Costiera (Coast Guard) boat in the Italian Pelagie Island of Lampedusa, on August 1, 2020. / AFP / Alberto PIZZOLI

Ahmed is fairly typical of the young men who make the trip. A resident of Zarzis, he used to work in the resorts of Djerba.

This year, with the resorts effectively closed, he worked odd days for a local gym to save up the 4,000 Tunisian dinars (Dh5,350) for the crossing to Europe.

Ahmed says the risks of the dangerous 330km voyage, physical and legal, will not put him off.

"I don't really think about the risks. I've seen women and children undertake the trip," he tells The National.

“If I’m arrested by either the Tunisian or Italian police, that’s the gamble.”

In June, 61 migrants, mostly from Sub-Saharan Africa, drowned after their boat capsized not long after leaving the central coastal city of Sfax.

The Migration Data Portal website estimates that 15,500 people have died between January 2014 and October 2019 while making the crossing.

Italian authorities say Tunisians are now the largest single nationality arriving at reception centres.

On the island of Lampedusa, centres intended for 95 people now host 10 times that number, with many new arrivals swiftly transferred to Sicily to await repatriation flights to Tunisia.

With holding centres stretched beyond endurance, escapes are common.

Migrants from Tunisia disembark from Italy's Guardia Costiera (Coast Guard) boat in the Italian Pelagie Island of Lampedusa on July 30, 2020.

 Nearly half of the 11,000 or so migrants who had made shore in Italy as of last week had set off from Tunisia, and most of those were Tunisian citizens, official figures show. Italy's Interior ministry said it was finding the migrant situation "much more complex" than in previous years, and was upping returns to Tunisia as it struggled to house new arrivals. / AFP / Alberto PIZZOLI

For would-be migrants, such as Ahmed, the process is relatively straightforward.

Once he has the money, he will join others in booking passage on one of the harbour’s small fishing boats, which can sail under the radar.

The boat will be sold to a captain willing to undertake the trip just before it takes off.

Elsewhere along the coast, such as from the Kerkennah Islands just off the industrial city of Sfax, larger boats leave, carrying between 70 and 80 passengers.

Within a few nautical miles of the Italian coast, passengers will disembark and make their way to Lampedusa on small dinghies

Resentment is growing on Lampedusa. Residents accuse the authorities of putting the needs of the migrants over those of the local economy, which is all but destroyed by the spread of coronavirus.

Under pressure from Italian authorities to act, in early August Tunisia announced it was sending naval vessels, surveillance devices and search teams to well-known departure points.

The move already appears to be slowing departures, with increasing numbers of migrants being returned to their homes, without their 4,000 Tunisian dinars.

While precise numbers are difficult to come by, across Zarzis there is a distinct nervousness among potential boat crews about being caught by the Tunisian or Italian authorities.

Many of the captains are facing just six months in jail, largely due to a lack of awareness about sentencing guidelines from a 2016 law mandating up to 10 years in jail for trafficking.

Walking on the streets of Zarzis, evidence of the desperate poverty causing many to pack up and leave is easy to see.

Ridha, a young man in his early twenties, shows The National around his home tucked down a small side-street.

He points to the bed where he sleeps in the open air, the stone outhouse where his mentally disabled brother spends the nights and two empty rooms where his diabetic mother sleeps.

On a makeshift table near the outdoor toilet, he lays out the medical bills he struggles to pay as an occasional house painter and fishmonger.

Ridha has been offered a free place on one of the boats to Europe if he serves as crew during the 10-hour crossing.

The legal penalties for trafficking make the gamble too great. Instead, he will do what he can to save at least half the fare and he hopes friends will help to cover the rest.

But first, Ridha says, his family must be taken care of.

“I will buy the tuk-tuk for my brother [to continue selling fish], then I will take the sea,” he says.

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