24th Feb 2024

'The boats will not stop', as migrants try to escape Tunisia violence

  • Sub-Saharan migrants in Sfax (Photo: Stephen Quillen)
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Sub-saharan migrants in Tunisia are "trying as hard as they can" to get out of the country following weeks of racist violence targeting them, resulting in a record surge of clandestine boats to Italy.

From 9-23 July, during the height of Tunisia's violent crackdown on sub-Saharan migrants, nearly 14,000 migrants, the vast majority sub-Saharans, reached Italy via Tunisia, an all-time record for this Mediterranean route.

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The surge took place despite the EU signing a migration pact with Tunisia on 16 July in which it committed €100m to support anti-smuggling and border control operations.

"Tunisia is not safe, so staying here is not an option for us," Adam, a 32-year-old migrant from Ghana who is homeless after being thrown out of his rental home in the central-eastern town of Sfax, told the EUobserver. "If I continue to stay here there's no telling what can happen. I must find a way to get out."

Since the first week of July, when a Tunisian was killed in clashes with sub-Saharans, black migrants have faced a storm of racism, violence, and abuse in Sfax, a seaside migration hub that lies 130 kilometres away from the Italian island of Lampedusa.

Hundreds of black migrants have been attacked, robbed, and kicked out of their homes in the city by vigilante mobs. Around 1,200 more have been rounded up by Tunisian authorities and expelled to desert No-Man's-Land zones near the Libyan and Algerian borders, with at least 12 perishing in the extreme heat.

As of 30 July, hundreds remained stranded in the desert areas with limited food and water, according to rights groups in contact with the migrants, while hundreds more remained homeless and destitute in the streets of Sfax.

To escape the unrest, many migrants are either seeking repatriation to their home countries, or, more commonly, trying to catch a clandestine boat to Italy.

"I am trying as hard as I can to get to Italy," Sounkalo, a 25-year-old migrant from Mali told the EUobserver from an olive grove 20km outside of Sfax, where he and three of his friends have sought refuge. "I've already spoken to the agent (smuggler) and I'm working to raise the money...It's not easy, but I am confident I can get to my destination."

While repatriation is an option for some migrants, the process can be long and cumbersome — and many are unwilling to consider it at all due to civil strife, terrorism, or desperate poverty in their home countries.

A spokesperson for the UN's International Organization for Migration told EUobserver via email that the organisation is helping facilitate safe return for migrants who want to go home, "including administrative procedures and return processes," but did not say how many repatriation flights it has organised in July, during the recent flare up of anti-migrant violence, or how many applications are under review.

Last week, the IOM worked with The Gambia to repatriate at least 127 Gambian citizens stranded in Libya and Tunisia.

Adam, from Ghana, said he recently had an interview at the IOM's field office in the city about a possible repatriation flight, but is not optimistic. If that option falls through, he says, he will try to take a boat to Italy.

"All my friends have already left for Italy," he told the EUobserver. "The only reason I'm still here is because I have no money."

To reach Italy, sub-Saharans transiting through Tunisia rely mostly on underground smuggling gangs based in Sfax, with "connection men" charging anywhere from 1,500 TND (€440) to 3,500 TND (€1,025) for passage to Europe. Some migrants, who earn just 20 TND (€6) per day in labour-intensive fields like construction, agriculture, and food service, must save up for months or years to come up with this sum.

The price of a seat depends on the quality and conditions of the boat — flimsier, overcrowded vessels are less costly, but especially vulnerable to stormy weather. "When you pay less money, it's very risky. Your life will be in danger because the smuggler will load people in the boat like sardines to profit more," said Adam. "When you pay good money (more than €880), they can take less people and you'll be safer and more comfortable."

Fishermen turned smugglers

Many smugglers in Tunisia are fishermen by trade who know the Mediterranean waters intimately and are skilled at avoiding detection. Sometimes, Tunisia's smuggling gangs also recruit sub-Saharans with strong maritime skills, especially those from coastal countries like Senegal or Ghana, to captain the boats, offering them free passage in exchange. Additionally, there are migrants who attempt the journey alone, crafting makeshift boats and relying on their cell phone GPS for navigation.

The flimsier the boat and less experienced the captain, the more risk the trip entails. So far in 2023, the bodies of 901 drowned migrants have been recovered off Tunisia's shores — 267 foreigners, 36 Tunisians, and 598 who could not be identified. And while Tunisia has attempted to crack down on the smuggling enterprise, arresting 550 "organisers and intermediaries" of illegal migration this year, the numbers of crossings have only skyrocketed.

Suleiman, a migrant hailing from Burkina Faso, said he understands the risks of crossing the Mediterranean by boat, but remains convinced it is his best bet.

"I know there are risks, but there are also risks in my home country due and risks if I stay here," he told the EUobserver. "I have to try my luck and hope that I'll arrive safely."

Aggravating, not fixing

Ahlam Chemlali, a PhD fellow at the Danish Institute for International Studies and a visiting scholar at Yale University, whose research focuses on migration and border policies in north Africa, said the EU's policy of outsourcing migration management to countries like Tunisia that lack a legal migration framework and basic human rights protections for migrants, is only "aggravating the conditions" that drive migration in the first place — while subjecting migrants to further violence and abuse.

"Thousands of migrants are in a state of informality and marginalisation in Tunisia, unable to access the formal labour market, unable to regularise their status, but forced to live in legal limbo -- stranded on the fringes of society," Chemlali told The EUobserver."

"In the absence of an official migration policy and asylum law we will continue to see waves of tension, clashes, and violence...Violent and illegal refoulements will continue."

Back in Sfax, migrants are sceptical that any amount of EU money or resources can put an end to their clandestine crossings. "The boats will not stop," one migrant from Mali told EUobserver under a makeshift tent in a public courtyard that has become his temporary home. "There is no visa for us, so the only way we can get to Europe is through the sea."

His friend added: "We'll keep trying. A hungry man is a hungry man."

Author bio

Stephen Quillen is a Tunis-based journalist and editor covering North African affairs. He has also written for The Telegraph, Al Monitor, Middle East Eye, and The Arab Weekly.

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