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Disillusioned Tunisians turn to smugglers and Europe

Tunisia= Tunisian migrants
A woman sits next to the coffin of a loved one outside a hospital in the Tunisian town of Sfax on June 4, 2018, after more than 50 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean. Photo AFP

Casual observers often cite Tunisia as the success story of the Arab Spring, which it ignited after over-throwing former dictator Zine Al Abedine Ben Ali in January 2011. Since then, the country has transitioned from a dictatorship to a representative democracy.

However, an ailing economy and political isolation continues to disenfranchise thousands of Tunisian youth. The result: more young Tunisians are crossing irregularly to Europe in search of a simple but dignified life.

In 2017, in the first eight months of the year, Italy registered 1,400 Tunisian arrivals. In the following five weeks, more Tunisians journeyed across the Mediterranean than in the previous two years combined. Overall, a total of 8,700 Tunisians were apprehended by Tunisian and Italian naval guards in 2017, a number which some observers believe is fraction of the real figure.

The uptick in migration went unnoticed in Tunisia until an overcrowded fishing boat collided with a vessel in October, killing up to 30 Tunisians. The most recent disaster occurred on June 4, 2018 when 46 migrants – including Tunisians – drowned off the coast of the country.

Tunisians travelling irregularly to Europe isn’t a new phenomenon. During the Jasmine revolution (another name for the Arab Spring) in 2011, more than, 28,000 Tunisians fled by boarded boats to Europe, taking advantage of the breakdown of law-enforcement.

Just like then, lack of employment and rising living costs are now the biggest factors pushing Tunisians from the southern and interior regions to migrate. Unemployment in Tunisia was at a 15% average in 2014 – in some parts of the country, like the far south province of Kasserine, it can be nearly twice as high as many coastal regions.

Some people smugglers, who used to exploit sub-Saharan migrants in Libya, are also believed to have shifted their operations to Tunisia since the European Union began its ‘‘war on smuggling’ in 2015. Many young Tunisians started approaching these smugglers after the cross border trade with Libya collapsed in the summer of 2017.

In Libya, civilians were then protesting against fuel smugglers, who are squandering a precious resource amid an economic meltdown. Championing their cause, several Libyan militias began cracking down on the trade. But the clampdown devastated the livelihoods of Tunisian gasoline smugglers and vendors. Many lost their main source of income, while jobs in the formal economy remained scarce. Up until then, gasoline smuggling employed roughly 5,600 people, pumping 320 million Tunisian dinars ($117 million) into households per year.

At the time, Tunisia was also launching its war on corruption, authorizing law enforcement to crack-down on money-lenders that issue funds and credit for informal activities in the Maghreb. Rather than find ways to legalize the informal financial system, writes Matt Herbert and Max Gallien from the Atlantic Council, the security response restricted access to essential capital in already impoverished regions in Tunisia.

Tunisia- Sfax
People wait for news of friends and relatives in the Tunisian town of Sfax on June 4, 2018, after more than 50 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean. Photo AFP

When the government finally passed a draft law to bring these currency exchangers, and their hard currency, under the formal market, it required all currency exchangers to pay 50,000 Dinars to the government and to hold a finance degree in order to continue working. The requirements stripped dozens of informal currency traders of their income.

With the informal economy in shatters, at the beginning of 2018 the government introduced crippling austerity measures thanks to pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The move sparked unrest in Tunisia as many took to the streets to protest.

Oumayma Ben Abdallah, a former research assistant for Human Rights Watch (HRW) who is now a Tunisian analyst, told Fanack Chronicle that the government has to do more to limit regional inequality. Wages, she stressed, need to be raised so that young Tunisians can afford to live. She suggests that the government could also empower entrepreneurs and hand out loans to small business leaders.

“[Currently] young people have no solutions to all these [economic] problems,” she said. “Hope for a better life has almost disappeared because of a lack of political will and lack of efficient measures to improve the economy.”

Hassan Chouchan, an unemployed 27-year-old who attempted to cross to Sicily last year, echoes that sentiment. When his boat was intercepted by Tunisian naval guards, he told Reuters that he would “prefer to die in the sea than stay in Tunisia without dignity.” “Please let us continue our journey. We do not want to stay here,” Reuters reported Chouchan yelling at the coast guard. He vowed to try to cross again.

Despite the increasing number of Tunisians crossing irregularly to Europe, the figure is still relatively low compared to those migrating from elsewhere in Africa and the Middle East. Rising xenophobia in Italy has nonetheless framed Tunisian migrants as a bunch of terrorists that were recently pardoned from prison.

But Stefano M. Torelli, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) who has followed the issue, writes that these accusations amount to little more than political fear mongering. In 2016, Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebsi pardoned 1,538 prisoners, none of whom were convicted for terrorist related crimes. Moreover, only 412 of those pardoned had been released by late 2017.

Nevertheless, the number of Tunisian youth leaving the country is expected to increase unless the government improves the current economic situation. That’s a challenge since most foreign business prefer to establish branches in Tunisia’s coastal cities, which are considerably more developed than the country’s interior.

Herbert and Gallien, the experts from the Atlantic Council, note that faith in the promises of the revolution are wavering, if not already shattered. One young man from the southeastern town of Medenine even told them that all he wants is to make enough money to build a house and purchase a car. He then recited a line from a proverb.
“We accept the suffering, but not even the suffering accepts us,” he said.

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