Unemployed Tunisians turn to illegal Mediterranean crossings to Europe

Numbers of Tunisian migrants attempting to enter Europe by boat have doubled over the past year

A Tunisian fisherman raises a sign next to a make-shift Tunisian flag during a protest outside the Italian embassy in the capital Tunis on September 6, 2018, calling for their release after being arrested by Italian authorities earlier in the week for rescuing African migrants in international waters and taking them to Italy. (Photo by ANIS MILI / AFP)
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It was dark and the rain had been falling for some time when the engine failed on the small boat Mohamed Mourad and his 13 friends had bought together. More than five hours out of Tunisia and with the boat leaking, they tried to start their spare engine but found it had flooded.

Desperate and scared, their chances of building new lives in Europe receded as the water within their small craft rose.

“We almost lost hope,” Mr Mourad, 22, told a translator. “There was no sign of other boats.”

The next morning though, their fortunes appeared to have turned when they hailed a fishing boat. The would-be migrants asked the fishermen, who came from the same Tunisian coastal town of Zarzis, to tow them into Italian waters where they would issue an SOS.

Journeys such as this are becoming increasingly common, with migrant numbers from Tunisia more than doubling over the past year. Driven by a lack of hope and a growing disenfranchisement with the political process, growing numbers of young Tunisian men are joining refugees from war-torn countries and migrants from impoverished sub-Saharan nations in seeking a new life in Europe.

But days after their rescue, the 14 hopeful migrants were returned to Tunisia and official disinterest. The captain and five crew of the fishing boat who came to their aid were thrown in an Italian prison, charged with people smuggling. If convicted, they face up to 15 years in jail.

The Italian coastguard maintains that it did not receive an SOS. Italian authorities have yet to respond to requests for comment.

Unlike many of the larger migrant boats that leave Tunisia for Europe, the group from Zarzis organised their own crossing attempt. As unemployed young men and adolescents, each had contributed what they could to the price of buying and equipping the boat.

Mr Mourad said he had paid 2,000 Tunisian Dinars, (Dh 2,645), others less. “Some didn’t pay anything, they didn’t have money, but it was OK because we were from the same neighbourhood,” he said.

The captain of the fishing boat that rescued them, Chamseddine Bourassine, is a well-known figure in Tunisia. The President of the Association of Fishermen in Zarzis, stories of Mr Bourassine’s efforts to rescue migrants at sea have received international attention. Anger and protests greeted his arrest, with demonstrations in Zarzis and outside the Italian Embassy in Tunis demanding his release.

Mr Mourad’s feelings on the matter are clear: “He should be honoured for helping us not imprisoned. He saved 14 people from drowning.”


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As of August, 3,811 Tunisians had been caught by Italian authorities attempting the crossing, compared to 1,721 during the same period last year.

Across Tunisia, unemployment is at 15 per cent and tops 30 per cent in areas such as Kasserine, near the Algerian border. In Tunis, where politicians and factions jockey for position ahead of the 2019 elections, inflation runs at 7.5 per cent, ratcheting up the cost of living monthly.

“There’s more despair, more hopelessness, more inflation,” said Massoud Romdhani, president of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, a local civil society NGO.

“The political situation is so bleak, with the parties splintering and concentrating upon their own affairs ahead of the elections, which seem far removed from those looking for work and hope.”

People know the risks of illegal migration but they are desperate, says Mr Romdhani. This year more than 1,600 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean, including more than 100 this month.

“This year, one in 18 migrants has gone missing at sea, last year, it was one in 42,” said Mr Romdhani. “It’s getting more dangerous.

"No one expects much from [a new life in] Europe. They don’t think it’ll be some kind of dream. They just see no future here.”

Mr Mourad said he would not attempt the journey again. He would still like to leave Tunisia, but says all legal routes are denied to him.

“I don’t have a future in this country,” he said. “There’s no solution that would fix my problem.”