Skip to main content

'Harraga' in Tunisia: The burning desire for a better life

'Harraga' in Tunisia: The burning desire for a better life
7 min read
05 July, 2022
In-depth: More young Tunisians are choosing to battle death in the Mediterranean Sea, feeling trapped in an increasingly autocratic state where censorship, poverty, and unemployment have soared.

Having risked their lives on often rickety boats, 20,218 refugees and migrants reached Italy after departing from Tunisia in 2021, according to the UN's refugee agency.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said this represented 30 percent of all those who made it to the European country by sea last year. It is also almost four times the 5,200 people who arrived from Tunisia in 2017.

In Sfax, southeast of Tunisia's capital Tunis, 32-year-old Nizar, whose name has been changed, stands facing the Mediterranean Sea every day. He absentmindedly watches the restless waves that have crushed many of his friends to death but carried a few others to a "better life" in Europe.

"It is a dangerous choice but also better than staying jobless here," he told The New Arab. "There I can make a living. I can become a real man. I will be able to start a family and help my parents financially. It is worth it."

Many young Tunisians like Nizar listen daily to stories of those who made it to Europe and how they helped their family to afford a house, a decent education for their siblings, or a trip to Mecca for their parents – the ultimate dream of every Muslim Tunisian mother and father.

The number of migrants reaching Italy by sea by country of departure. [TNA]

After decades where migrants were largely young Tunisian men, mostly with limited education, the recent wave also includes degree-holders, women, children, infants and, in some cases, whole families risking their lives together in one boat.

In 2021, about 2,637 minors, accompanied and unaccompanied, reached Europe. This includes those arriving in Italy, but also children who travelled through other routes, such as to Spain.

"Those who cannot afford legal migration for their children today choose irregular migration boats in an attempt to offer them a better life," FTDES spokesperson Romdhan Ben Amor told The New Arab.

Locally, they are called 'harraga', or burners, given they set their official papers alight when they reach the other side so European police won't be able to identify where they're from and deport them back there.

Live Story

Besides the dangers of the sea, booking a place on a boat is neither easy nor cheap. Named "boats of death", these ill-equipped, tiny vessels which usually sneak through in the dead of night ironically remain the last hope many Tunisians have of a better future.

A place on a boat heading to Italy, the most common destination for vessels leaving from Tunisia, can cost up to $3,600, depending on the type of boat and its owner's power and influence. "There's like a ring of migrant boats," Nizar said. "They need to trust you first before giving you information about how to secure a place on one of their boats. You need to pay them cash in advance of the scheduled trip."

To avoid human smugglers, growing numbers of young Tunisians instead decide to "self-smuggle", pooling their money, sourcing boats, engines and fuel, and departing on their own. However, Nizar said it is a more dangerous choice as the chances of getting lost or caught are higher.

The history of the 'harraga' in Tunisia goes back three decades to when Italy chose to require the North African country's nationals to possess an entry visa.

Today, as young Tunisians are left trapped in an increasingly autocratic state where censorship, poverty and unemployment have soared, more of them are choosing to battle death in the Mediterranean Sea.

The migration crisis and feelings of despair: 2008–2022

Throughout Tunisia's history, the number of irregular migrants departing from the country has depended on its sociopolitical circumstances. "It is the rising feeling of despair that increases the number of illegal migrants when they feel that there's no hope," said Ben Amor.

The common nationalities of refugees and migrants arriving in Italy by sea. [TNA]

It was in 2008 that the 'harraga' phenomenon initially exploded, with 6,762 Tunisians reaching Italy's Lampedusa island – more than any other nationality and a dramatic jump from just 1,100 in 2007.

The year 2008 witnessed the outbreak of the first notable revolt against the regime of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali – the mining basin movement in Gafsa province, which carried on for half a year.

The uptick was only temporary, however, with migration figures falling in 2009, though another surge was soon to come. 

In 2011, 28,829 migrants arrived in Italy and elsewhere in Europe after departing from Tunisia, according to FTDES data.

Despite deposing Ben Ali in the Jasmine Revolution that year, the North African nation continued to languish in corruption, torn between the political ambitions of the rising parties. Political instability and continued economic hardship were the main problems fuelling migration at the time.

The number departing decreased in the following years because of cooperation with European countries and efforts made by the authorities to tackle the issue.

But in 2021 the rate of migration picked up again with 20,218 refugees and migrants departing from Tunisia and reaching Italy by sea, according to the UNHCR. 

"The two main reasons behind this new increase are the Covid-19 pandemic and the events of 25 July," Ben Amor said.

On that date last year, Tunisian President Kais Saied froze parliament, dismissed the prime minister, and announced he will temporarily rule by decree. Flanked by military and security officials, Saied also rescinded parliamentary immunity, threatening to subject corrupt parliamentarians to the law "despite their wealth and positions".

The unemployment rate in Tunisia reached 18.4 percent in the third quarter of last year, as coronavirus eliminated many Tunisian citizens' jobs, mainly in the tourism sector.

Live Story

Ben Amor feels that the "events of 25 July have also played a key role in shaping the idea of irregular migration in the minds of many young Tunisian people".

Saied's move led to widespread protests in Tunisia, with demonstrators condemning his decision as a 'coup' against the gains of the 2011 revolution.

In 2022, the birthplace of the Arab Spring uprisings witnessed several instances of human rights abuses against anti-Saied protesters and politicians. Tunisia also fell 21 places in the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index this year, dropping from 73rd to 94th position.

As Saied's "constitutional mania" continues to fuel conflict between the people and the state, FTDES expects the rate of irregular migration to continue to grow this summer.

"The number of irregular migrants is on the rise, especially [among] minors. But we have also noticed this year that the number of deaths has risen due to tightening control of maritime borders," FTDES's spokesperson Ben Amor said.

Because of mounting European pressure on Tunisia, since April, the Tunisian navy has started intercepting migrants in international waters.

FTDES says the results of the Tunisian-European coordination started to show at the level of a more accurate process of the identification of the identities of migrants through the quick Tunisian response.

Forced deportations rose to 160 deportations per week in late 2021 instead of 80 operations per week before.

Tunisia: A rising hub of migratory transit

Plagued with poverty, civil wars and dictatorships, each year thousands of asylum seekers from sub-Saharan Africa travel very long and perilous journeys through several countries before embarking on their final voyage by boat

Missing and dead refugees and migrants crossing from North Africa to Italy and Malta by sea. [TNA]

Tunisia, a common departure point to Italy, has recently become a popular transit location for those looking for a safer route into Europe.

Tunisians continue to represent the majority of irregular migrants arriving on Italian shores from Tunisia but, since 2018, citizens of other states have been increasingly choosing to leave from the North African country too. 

"Today, 53 percent of sub-Saharan migrants prefer Tunisia as their departure point," Ben Amor said.

He explained that the factors driving transit migration by foreign citizens through Tunisia are principally linked to the risks associated with other transit routes in North Africa, such as through Libya, as well as the lack of "serious integration" of sub-Saharan migrants in Tunisia.

"Many sub-Saharan migrants who came to Tunisia looking for a better life were disappointed and decided to continue their migration given the lack of opportunities [in the country]," Ben Amor said.

UNHCR estimates indicate the presence of 5,406 refugees and asylum seekers in Tunisia. Most originate from Syria (1,976), followed by Côte d'Ivoire (1,619), and Sudan (276). However, those considered to be in the country illegally are excluded from this figure.

Meanwhile, Libya is known as the deadliest migration route in the world. Thousands of survivors have told of being detained there and trapped in a cycle of violence, abuse, and extortion. In November 2021, the UN fact-finding mission in Libya found these violations to be crimes against humanity.

Basma El Atti is The New Arab's Morocco correspondent.

Follow her on Twitter: @elattibasma