Marginalisation driving Tunisians to migrant boats

Marginalisation driving Tunisians to migrant boats
In-depth: A worsening economy and frustration among civilians drives more Tunisians from the marginalised interior towards irregular migration, writes Alessandra Bajec.
6 min read
19 July, 2018
Tens of thousands of migrants land on the Italian coast each year [Getty]

A couple of weeks ago, the main organiser of a human trafficking operation off Tunisia's southern coast was arrested in the aftermath of what is known to be the country's deadliest migrant shipwreck.

A worsening economy and growing frustration is driving more Tunisians from the marginalised interior towards irregular migration. 

The start of June saw the tragic death of at least 100 people when their boat packed with over 180 migrants sank off the Kerkennah islands as it tried to reach Europe, Tunisia's worst accident along the dangerous Mediterranean Sea route.

While boats from Tunisia generally make it across the Mediterranean or get caught, the June 2 shipwreck was an unusual exception that triggered public protests, a wave of arrests, and a shakeup in the Tunisian Interior Ministry and security forces.

"We note that the current repressive migratory policy doesn't really curb the flows or dissuade Tunisians from leaving," said Valentin Bonnefoy, policy officer at the migration department at the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES)

"We also see no improvement in the lives of the would-be migrants from the southern and interior regions," he added.

The human tragedy brought back to the fore the rise of illegal migration from the Tunisian shore.

Tunisia stopped about 6,000 migrants leaving its coasts for Europe in the first five months of the year, recording a sharp surge from the few hundreds prevented in the same period last year, an Interior Ministry source told Reuters.

Based on UNHCR data, more than 1,900 Tunisians have reached Italy since the beginning of this year, making Tunisia the first registered nationality of arrivals in Italy so far. A growing movement that has been observed since mid-2017.

More than 1,900 Tunisians have reached Italy since the beginning of this year, making Tunisia the first registered nationality of arrivals in Italy so far

The recent spike in departures cannot be attributed to re-routing of migrants following reduced boat crossings from Libya. 

FTDES' 2017 report on irregular migration from Tunisia revealed that, currently, more than 90 percent of migrants departing from Tunisia are Tunisians.

In its press statement that followed the Kerkennah disaster, FTDES raised the attention over the country's economic and social crisis, alerting the authorities about the widespread drama among Tunisian youth who dream of leaving their country by any means.

There is an obvious correlation between drivers of migration and origin of migrants, as the June 2 sea accident showed. Many of the victims in the drowning were identified as originating from the country's south including Gabes, Medenine and Tataouine.

Marked by a long history of economic and political marginalisation and frustration since before the 2011 revolution, these regions have continued to suffer. 

There is continued frustration over regional inequality, concerns over the deteriorating economy and anger over the lack of jobs

"We're already dead, it's not a big deal if we die at sea", seemed to be the general opinion of young Tunisians embarking on their journey, Marco Jonville from FTDES, found in a video report.  

"After living through decades of non-development, these young Tunisians have no prospects," Jonville told The New Arab

Persistently high unemployment and lack of opportunities drive people to look for alternatives elsewhere, and even risk their lives at sea. Tunisian coasts are increasingly used by smugglers as a point of departure for migrants heading to Europe.

This could see tragedies in the Mediterranean increase, especially given the recent shift in Italy's politics after the emergence of right-wing populism in the March general election.

The two government partners, the far-right Lega and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, have both embodied a neo-fascist, anti-migrant sentiment reflected in Italy's current hardline policies on the refugee situation. 

Persistently high unemployment and lack of opportunities drive people to look for alternatives elsewhere, and even risk their lives at sea

On the same day of the Kerkennah incident, Matteo Salvini, leader of the Lega and Italy's interior minister drew Tunisian anger after he accused Tunisian authorities of sending "convicted criminals" to his country.

"Salvini's remarks tap into the new Italian government's narrative," commented Matteo Villa, research fellow within the migration programme at Italy-based think-tank ISPI.

"For Tunisia, which is among the countries that cooperate the most with Italy on migration issues, such comments came as a let down," the researcher continued.

Read also: Migrants face even more danger after disputed Italy-Libya deal

The hostility of the Italian government to new arrivals of migrants and refugees was built upon years of rhetoric from both governing parties, translated into policy that has shaped Italy's security-based response, in line with the EU's strategy of border externalisation. 

Frustration at economic recession and uncertainty among the Italians channelled their anger and fear toward an easy, vulnerable category of people perceived as "different" (migrants) in conjunction with the rise in incoming flows in recent years, despite arrivals have dropped sharply since Europe's migration crisis erupted in 2015.

Arrivals to Europe fell by nearly half between 2016 and 2017, according to UN figures, with 43,096 sea arrivals recorded in the Mediterranean thus far in 2018 compared to 172,301 in all of 2017.

"We've observed ongoing tragedies at sea resulting in tens of thousands of human lives lost," stated Italian writer and journalist Christian Raimo who investigated the rise of neo-fascism in Italy.

"Responding through repressive policies will only lead to the militarisation of the Mediterranean area."

IOM Tunisia chief of mission Lorena Lando emphasised that enabling safe, legal migration is key, warning against risks that illegal migrants are exposed to once their reach the European mainland such as staying without papers, no right to work, police persecution, exploitation by human traffickers.

Tunisia has been suffering a deep economic crisis since the toppling of dictator Ben Ali in 2011, that threw Tunisia into chaos with unemployment and inflation springing up. For the North African country, 2017 has been particularly rough.

"It is important to work on developing local communities, creating employment, promoting small-medium sized businesses, engaging the youth," Lando reminded.

Tunisian southerners are thus more likely to turn to sea crossings in the attempt to seek a new life in Europe with an un-addressed regional gap and little trust in the government's ability to deliver on repeated promises of development, jobs and better living conditions.

Opportunities in the formal sector remain scant, and the conditions for private investment are still poor, whilst most of the investment projects go to the coastal and northern regions.

Rising inflation and price hikes have worsened the situation of many of those now leaving the country. 

To add up, IMF demands for Tunisia to adopt an austerity-based economic reform programme leave little space to consider development plans for marginalised regions.

Moreover, international actors pushing to open Tunisia's economy could exacerbate the imbalance of opportunities within the country.

While economic hardship is not a new phenomenon in the south, there appears to be a sense of resignation and growing pessimism around young Tunisians in these regions.

"A lot of the youth realise that they are still jobless. Those who find work get paid too little to raise a family. Many find it is worth travelling to Europe, getting any job there to earn in euros and send money back home," Bonnefoy explained.

"A feeling of despair pushes an increasing number of people to look for other alternatives outside Tunisia."

Read also: 'The citizen is tired': Tunisia's quiet class struggle against austerity measures

Rising migration from Tunisian coasts will not solve the problems of regional inequality and economic opportunities while there is no government action to address these difficult economic and social problems.

Beyond cracking down on migrant smugglers, securing its own borders and supporting the EU in managing theirs, Tunisia's interest lies in creating hope for young Tunisians within the country by investing in job creation and promoting regional development.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis. 

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec