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.
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”.
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.
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.
„Tunisia: North Africa’s overlooked migration hub“