Growing unemployment, dwindling wages and tax hikes trigger rise in illegal migration and concerns over terrorism
Ahmed Souissi describes himself as a civil society activist. In a country where almost every job is unionised, Souissi is the leader of the Union of Unemployed Graduates on the island of Kerkennah: the departure point for Tunisians heading – legally and illegally – to Europe.
Souissi is now employed, but his union work continues. He has seen the illegal migration business take root and flourish on his island. He describes the old fishing boats – packed with desperate, predominantly young men from across the country – making their way out of the harbour in full view of the police and national guard, groups ostensibly charged with halting them.
It isn’t just Kerkennah. Coastal ports all along Tunisia’s picturesque coast have served as launching points for clandestine crossings into Europe.
According to a leaked Interpol report from November last year, 50 Tunisians with ties to Islamic State are thought to be among those who emigrated illegally to Italy in 2017. One might even have entered France. By the country’s own estimate, a further 29,000 Tunisians were prevented from leaving the country during 2017 alone because of concerns about terrorism.
For the vast majority, the motivations for leaving the country of their birth are less nefarious. In the wake of nationwide protests over tax hikes, life is getting tougher as incomes and employment opportunities dwindle. According to the 2014 census, unemployment in Tunisia runs at roughly 15%. In some regions in the interior, such as Kasserine on the border with Algeria, that figure can double. Hope for the future is at a minimum.
“Tunisia is finished,” Omar Aydi, 25, told Al Monitor after travelling by boat from Tunisia to Italy.
The passage between Tunisia and Europe can be as short as 150km, but it is often dangerous. In October, a collision between a Tunisian naval vessel and migrant boat left more than 40 people dead. The Tunisian navy claimed to have rescued a further 38 passengers. Protesters in the impoverished interior region of Kebili, where many on board were from, have accused the Tunisian navy of sinking the boat deliberately.
After peaking around the time of the 2011 revolution, illegal crossings from Tunisia to Europe had dwindled in recent years. However, last September migrant numbers rose again. In the first eight months of 2017, Italy reported that 1,350 Tunisians had arrived at Lampedusa. But that number was eclipsed in the space of a single month in September, when 1,400 people made the journey. In October, the figure rose again, with the Italian interior ministry reporting that 2,790 Tunisians had arrived in a single month. By the end of December, 6,151 people had arrived illegally in Italy in 2017.
The increase is partly due to tighter security measures in neighbouring Libya, which has diverted some of the international migrant flow through Tunisia. However, given the marked increase of Tunisians among recent waves of migrants, it is clear that something else is going on, beyond simple geographic displacement.
Since the closure of numerous migrant routes from Libya, a cadre of people smugglers – some established, others less so – seems to have taken root in Tunisia, preying on the country’s most desperate people.
“There are people organising groups. We’ve had people on the same boat from the same village, so that suggests someone in that town or village is making it easier [to find people to smuggle],” said Lorena Lando, the International Organization for Migration’s chief of mission in Tunis. “It could be that people who had previously focused on opportunities in Libya are now switching their marketing to Tunisia. Equally, it could be the environment, where people who have waited for work for so long have lost faith in ever having a job.
“If you’re offered an opportunity at a time when you’re frustrated and anxious about what’s going to be your future, your decision – whatever the risks involved – becomes easier.”
Evidence of that desperation is increasingly apparent. According to the IOM, about 544 unaccompanied minors were found on Tunisia’s migrant boats last year.
Lando reflects on what motivates those who risk everything for the uncertainty of an unknown continent. “We all see the TV. We all see better opportunities. We see Europe, a continent where democracy and individual freedoms are valued, job opportunities exist – so of course, it’s an attraction.”