In Tunisia, “leaving illegally is now a collective and assumed project”

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Migrants from Tunisia, during a rescue operation organized by the Spanish NGO Open Arms, south of the Italian island of Lampedusa, August 9, 2022.

Women veiled in black, a handkerchief in their hands. Chairs scattered in front of the houses for visitors who came to offer their condolences. In Bouhajla, in the center of Tunisia, everything says the mourning of these families who have been waiting for days for the remains of their loved ones who disappeared during the sinking of a clandestine boat, on the night of September 6 to 7, off the coast. of Chebba (east).

In this agricultural town of 8,000 inhabitants, where the poverty rate of 32% is twice the national average, almost every household in the El-Maki district was affected by this tragedy which left thirteen dead, according to a provisional report. . Seven passengers have not yet been found. Rawiya Dhifaoui still cannot believe in the death of his younger brother, Mohamed Dhifaoui, 21, whose body has been recovered. This Friday, September 16, she remembers with sadness that he should have celebrated his birthday the next day.

“He worked in the repair of air conditioning systems. He was struggling to make a living because he didn’t have a fixed contract but he wasn’t expected to leave that way,” she says. Mohamed often spoke to him of his desires to migrate; she advised him to go to the Gulf countries. “But he wanted to have papers and like many others, he was influenced by social networks, because here everyone leaves for Europe and advertises it on Facebook, from the moment of departure until the arrival. », she says.

“The Self-Passer”

Clandestine migration has become commonplace and affects all walks of life and all age groups, according to this teacher. In the neighborhood, two high school girls left just after their baccalaureate, in June. A few days after the news of the sinking, an entire family with four children attempted a crossing to have one of the disabled sons treated abroad.

The phenomenon has grown in recent months in the country. Since the start of the year, 13,700 Tunisian migrants have reached Italian shores, up 18% year-on-year, indicated in mid-September the Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), a Tunisian NGO. The French Navy prevented the departure of nearly 23,217 candidates for exile.

Unemployment is no longer the only cause of departure among young people, as explained by researcher Wael Garnaoui, author of the book Harga and desire for the West (Nirvana editions, 345 pages, 2022): “The deterioration of the economic situation and the inability to plan for the future with the political instability of the country, pushes people to flee, all socio-professional strata combined. There are now people with jobs, women, and even families with children. »

While some, as in the case of migrants from Bouhajla, still resort to smuggling networks, young people in coastal regions are now fending for themselves to avoid scams and the dangers of an overloaded boat according to expert Matthew Herbert, author several reports on migration for the NGO Global Initiative. “This is what we can call the ‘self-smuggler’: a young person who goes to buy a boat with a group of friends, or rent it, find the engine, fuel and leave with a GPS to reach the Italian coasts »he says, adding that this new phenomenon, observed since the pandemic, contributes with social networks “to demystify the crossing. The taboo or shameful side of leaving clandestinely fades away. It is now a collective and assumed project “.

“Everything has increased so much”

In Bouhajla, migration is sometimes a matter of life and death, “there is not a single family that does not talk about this”, explains Rawiya Dhifaoui. In August, two young people committed suicide after their parents refused to give them the sum of money necessary to pay for a clandestine crossing. Achref Selmi narrowly escaped the September 6 shipwreck. This 28-year-old young man had decided to leave with his fiancée, after having spent six years applying for competitions to work in the security sector, without success. “I tried everything but they always put me on the waiting list”, he explains. He had already smuggled out earlier in the year. Arrested as soon as he arrived in Italy, he had been expelled.

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The legs damaged by the stay in the water, he remembers with dread the hours spent at sea, “the screams of those who had no life jackets, the fear that someone would drown me in panic”. He recounts his trauma with precision, under the bewildered gaze of his parents. “He had only spoken to his mother about his project but I understand it: even if he works helping me in the café that I run, he does not earn enough to get married or start a family. Everything has increased so much”explains his father, Abderrazak Ben Aoun Selmi.

Her sister’s husband, 42 years old and father of two children, had taken the same boat: lately, his daily jobs on construction sites or markets no longer allowed him to make ends meet. His body has not been found.

Inflation over 8%

The country, in recession since the pandemic, must now deal with inflation of more than 8%, fueled by the repercussions of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Everything is increasing: housing prices (+ 8% over one year), those of food, as well as fuel whose prices have already seen four increases since the beginning of the year.

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The number of accompanied and unaccompanied minors is also increasing every year. By 2021, it had quadrupled compared to 2017, according to the FTDES. The families are banking on the fact that minors cannot be deported before they turn 18, according to Wael Garnaoui: “For teenagers who come to France, there is the hope that they can regularize their situation once there, but the reality is that they are then cared for by Child Welfare and cannot work or integrate into society”, explains the researcher, who is also a clinical psychologist and has received many Tunisian minors in consultation, in France.

Massive departure of elites

The economic and social slump is one of the Achilles heels of Tunisian President Kaïs Saïed, who assumed full powers in July 2021. The double shock of the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine has put in jeopardize the finances of the country and the government is negotiating with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to try to avoid bankruptcy. In addition to the lack of economic prospects, the political situation also remains confused: legislative elections are scheduled for December 17 on the basis of a controversial electoral law introduced by the president, but several political parties have already announced their intention to boycott the election.

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Waiting, “As with every crisis, migratory movements are intensifying”, explains Wael Garnaoui who believes that the loss of confidence is also amplified by the massive departure of the elites. “When a Tunisian sees doctors and engineers leaving legally for years and basic infrastructure deteriorating, he no longer believes in an improvement in the situation and wants to follow the movement. » Between 2015 and 2020, more than 39,000 engineers and nearly 3,000 doctors left the country legally to work abroad.

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