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Tunisia: North Africa’s overlooked migration hub

‘I’m waiting for my documents, but if I don’t get them I’ll go by sea.’

Many migrants and asylum seekers pass through the migration hub of the desert town of Medinine on their way into Tunisia.
Many migrants and asylum seekers pass through the migration hub of the desert town of Medinine on their way into Tunisia. (Annalisa Camilli/TNH)

Fatoumata Camara and her two young sons have spent nearly two years in a red-brick building in the desert town of Medenine in southeast Tunisia – 3,600 kilometres as the crow flies from her hometown in Guinea, and more than 500 kilometres from the closest stretch of Italian coastline where she had hoped to end up.

In January 2018, she set off in a small dinghy with her husband and the children, attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Italy. After getting into trouble on the winter voyage, they were rescued by an NGO-operated vessel.

Crying as she recounted the journey, Camara recalled how she thought the family’s troubles were over. “It was a big, welcoming ship,” she told The New Humanitarian outside the reception centre in Medenine where she now lives. “They told us they would take us to Italy.”

But Camara’s older son had water in his lungs and had to be taken straight to hospital in Tunisia. She and her other son went with them, while her husband was taken elsewhere. “We begged them not to separate us, but there was nothing we could do: they put me on a helicopter with 10 other people,” she explained.

Camara and her two sons were eventually transferred to Tunisia’s southern migration hub of Medenine, joining a small but steady stream of people who have been showing up in the North African country over the past two years.

Some are seeking an alternative path to Europe, others a safe haven from the rampant exploitation, abuse, and spiralling conflict next door in Libya. Others still, like Camara, were rescued and brought ashore – often by the Tunisian coast guard, fishermen, or merchant vessels – after their attempts to make it to Europe failed.

Regardless of how they arrive, Tunisia can be a hard country for asylum seekers and migrants to get out of.

Between January and the end of November last year, fewer than 4,000 people managed to cross the Mediterranean from Tunisia to Italy. Of those, around three quarters were Tunisians searching for a better life in Europe – a trend that began after the country’s 2010-2011 revolution and has continued at pace since.

Foreign asylum seekers and migrants like Camara who end up in Tunisia often find themselves stuck in a confusing asylum system that is under-resourced and overburdened by the increasing number of people seeking assistance.

While people can try to apply for asylum in Tunisia, the government is yet to pass a law that guarantees them that right and has, in the past, forced people back across its borders who tried to enter illegally and sought to limit assistance to those having claims processed.

The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, oversees refugee status determination in the country.

"In certain cases, where UNHCR identifies people who meet specific protection criteria, the agency supports refugees to be resettled in other countries,” the agency says. Only a handful were resettled in third countries in 2019.

Most asylum seekers and migrants, however, are left with unenviable choices: eventually opting for voluntary repatriation to their home countries; becoming undocumented with limited rights in Tunisia; or simply waiting and hoping to find a way to Europe.

Camara’s husband has obtained humanitarian protection in Italy, which grants him a two-year residency permit. But she remains stuck in Tunisia, waiting on family reunification documents that may or may not arrive and allow the rest of the family a way out.

Shifting routes

Migration dynamics in Tunisia have long been overshadowed by the international community’s focus on Libya, its eastern neighbour.

Between 2013 and 2017, Libya was the main gateway between North Africa and Europe. In 2017, nearly 120,000 asylum seekers and migrants crossed the central Mediterranean from North Africa to Italy.

The vast majority – over 90 percent – departed from Libya, but mostly before that route snapped almost completely shut following a February 2017 agreement between Italy and Libya aimed at curbing migration. Tens of thousands of asylum seekers and refugees and hundreds of thousands of migrants found themselves trapped in dire situations.

Last year, fewer than 12,000 asylum seekers and migrants crossed the central Meditarranean, and the number of people departing from Libya and Tunisia was roughly equal. This actually represented a drop in the number of people reaching Italy from Tunisia, from 5,200 in 2017 to 3,624 between January and the end of November last year.

Still, when Italy documented a slight increase in arrivals from Tunisia in September 2019, Italian politicians began reviving talk of an “immigration emergency”.

Ramdhan Messaoudi of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES) said Italy’s response was an overreaction.

Tunisia held presidential and parliamentary elections in September and October, and Messaoudi said departures from the country tend to increase when law enforcement agencies are preoccupied with election-related security.

What has changed, Messaoudi believes, is who is making the trip. The majority of those making the journey to Europe last year were Tunisians, with around 900 (25 percent) from other, mainly sub-Saharan African, countries.

“In the past, migrants from sub-Saharan Africa comprised between nine and 11 percent of those departing from Tunisia,” said Messaoudi. “In 2019, this percentage rose because of the deteriorating situation in Libya and the bombing of Libyan detention centres.”

As chaos further encircles Libya, the emerging and perhaps more neglected crisis may be in Tunisia, where an increasing number of people are reportedly looking for help.

Welcome, unwelcome

Sub-Saharan African asylum seekers and migrants are either rescued at sea or enter Tunisia via two points along the border with Libya, said Wijdi Benmhamed, a spokesperson for the UN’s migration agency, IOM, in the southern port city of Zarzis.

Last year, he said more than 600 people were rescued at sea and brought to cities like Zarzis on the coast.

Once in Tunisia, migrants and asylum seekers are legally only allowed to stay in reception centres for up to 60 days. During that time, they are supposed to have their claims for assistance processed.

Benmhamed said the few centres in operation – run by UNHCR, IOM, and the Tunisian Red Crescent – have limited capacity and are often overcrowded due to people staying for longer than their allotted time, as UNHCR processes new arrivals’ information.

The Tunisian authorities have so far blocked the opening of more facilities, with former president Beji Caid Essebsi saying in October 2018 that the country lacks the capacity to open centres to hold asylum seekers, as suggested at the time by the European Union.

People who stay in the centres for long periods of time are entitled to some aid.

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Fatoumata Camara and her two young sons have spent nearly two years in southeast Tunisia, having been brought there after a failed attempt to cross the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy.
Annalisa Camilli/TNH
Fatoumata Camara and her two young sons have spent nearly two years in southeast Tunisia, having been brought there after a failed attempt to cross the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy.

Camara said that at the centre where she lives in Medenine – jointly managed by the Tunisian Red Crescent and IOM – she receives 30 dinars (about $11) per week from the government. “The money is enough to buy some rice for the children; it doesn’t go far,” she said.

No asylum law

Complicating and sometimes slowing down the process is the fact that a law that would allow foreigners to claim asylum in Tunisia has been drafted, but not approved.

In its absence, it’s up to UNHCR to register asylum seekers and handle their claims, in collaboration with the Tunisian Council for Refugees. “People who want to claim asylum submit a dossier to the Tunisian Council for Refugees. They can’t be deported, but they also can’t become regularised residents or work,” said Paola Pace, an IOM spokesperson.

While people deemed to be refugees can be resettled to third countries if they get one of the limited global spots, most migrants and asylum seekers are left in a precarious position due to the lack of legal options in Tunisia. They can claim asylum, but they are unlikely to receive it.

“They can end up in situations of uncontracted labour, precarity, and exploitation.”

Several migrants told TNH of an incident at the end of August when a Somali woman attempted suicide in a Medenine reception centre after her asylum claim was denied following a six-month wait.

Cases of psychological distress, depression, and self-harm are frequent, and people who are deemed not to be refugees often become undocumented and find themselves in dangerous situations.

There are an estimated 10,000 undocumented migrants in Tunisia, but official statistics don’t exist. If caught, people without papers face imprisonment and monetary fines.

“They can end up in situations of uncontracted labour, precarity, and exploitation,” Pace explained. “Throughout the country, foreigners are frequently employed in the service industry, in bars and gas stations, domestic work for the women, and in some areas they become agricultural labourers in conditions of semi-slavery.”

Most asylum seekers TNH spoke to, in both Zarzis and Medenine, said they didn’t want to stay in Tunisia. Some hoped to obtain refugee status and travel legally to Europe. Others, like Camara, were waiting for documents that would allow them to join family members elsewhere.

“There is no work here,” said Ilyes Mohamed Mohatar, an unaccompanied minor from Sudan living in one of the centres in Medenine. “I’m waiting for my documents, but if I don’t get them I’ll go by sea.”

Some migrants were working under the table to earn money to pay for the Tunisia-Italy crossing, while there were even people who planned to return to Libya and attempt the Mediterranean crossing to Europe from there, despite the known risks.

Smugglers charge about a third of the price to take people out of Libya than they do for those leaving from Tunisia, Pace explained.

‘I won’t stop trying’

While the reception centres are mostly filled with Africans, the Tunisia-Italy route remains mostly travelled by Tunisian citizens.

“One of the changes we’ve noted since 2015 is the profile of those who choose to emigrate,” said Messaoudi from FTDES. “First, only the poorest people left – those who hadn’t finished school or who didn’t have the opportunity to study. Now, the upper classes also emigrate, including young men with diplomas.”

“When you have a [European] passport you can go where you want, but it’s not like that if you don't have a European passport.”

The economy is in stagnation, and public service provision is poor. “But it is above all the lack of a future that drives Tunisians to leave – the awareness that a degree is not enough to improve one’s position,” Messaoudi added.

In a November interview at the beach in Zarzis, Wassim, a young Tunisian man from the city who called himself a makeshift smuggler, told TNH he had bought a boat from a fisherman in order to leave for Italy, and had found 14 people to share the cost of the journey with him.

Obtaining a visa to enter Europe would be almost impossible through official channels, although he said he had heard of corrupt methods that would cost more than the boat trip.

“When you have a [European] passport you can go where you want, but it’s not like that if you don't have a European passport,” Wassim said. “I had a job here as a pastry chef, but I wanted to earn more, to buy land in Tunisia.”

Along with his companions, he loaded the seven-metre (22-foot) boat with basic necessities – diesel, water, biscuits – and left. After 26 hours, they reached Lampedusa where Wassim was transferred to the Italian island’s so-called reception hotspot.

After a few days, he was taken by ferry to Sicily, then to a deportation centre. He was eventually repatriated to Tunis on a flight with 28 other migrants, each of them handcuffed and accompanied by two policemen.

“It was a great humiliation to go home after trying to go to Europe,” Wassim said. “I’ll ask for a visa again. If it works, great. Otherwise, I won’t stop trying.”

Annalisa Camilli reported this story from Tunisia, and Eleanor Paynter translated it from the original Italian.

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