The coronavirus sends thousands of Tunisian migrants to Italy | Instant News

During the first eight months of this year, nearly 8,000 Tunisian citizens crossed the Mediterranean into Italy, six times more than last year, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and Tunisian citizens are now the largest nationality arriving in Italy. . An average of two migrant boats leave the coastal city of Zarzis every night during the summer for the Italian island of Lampedusa, local fishermen said.

A 23-year-old house painter from Zarzis said he departed last month with eight other men and five boys, including his younger brother, on a 25-hour journey across the “restless” sea. When they arrived in Lampedusa, “the joy was beyond description,” he said in an interview conducted via Facebook.

The young man, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid attracting more attention from Italian authorities, spent a month in offshore detention before being released. However, many of his fellow migrants are likely to be deported. Regular deportation flights from Italy to Tunisia resumed last month.

Overall, sea arrivals in Italy this year from all countries – about 20,000 people in the last month – are far less than the hundreds of thousands recorded in 2016 and 2017, the UN says. However, experts say the surge in Tunisian migrants is likely the harbinger of a new wave, as the coronavirus is increasingly impacting livelihoods in developing countries.

“In the medium term, I think it’s safe to assume that there will be more pressure on the migration front to Europe,” said Olivia Sundberg Diez, policy analyst at the European Policy Center, a think tank in Brussels.

Aymen Hussein, 25, who works at a Zarzis restaurant, said bad weather in recent days was the only thing preventing him from trying to cross. His restaurant had been closed during the lockdown, and when it reopened, his low salary was not enough to keep up with rising food prices, and he was struggling to make ends meet, he said.

Khouildi Saif, 25, a fisherman in Zarzis, said friends faced a grim choice: “I will die in my country or I will die at sea.” Today, he said, many prefer to take risks at sea.

Getting a visa to Europe is expensive and difficult for most Tunisians. Over the years, they have made the treacherous Mediterranean crossing known throughout North Africa as “harraga”, or “arson,” as migrants “burn” borders in search of a better life in Europe.

Amid unprecedented border closures in the spring, due to public health restrictions, irregular migration to Europe has almost stalled. But after the restrictions were lifted, more than 4,000 Tunisian citizens crossed into Italy in July alone, the UN says. Tunisia’s population accounted for about two-fifths of all arrivals by sea this year, a proportion that migration experts say is enormous.

The influx has raised concerns in southern Italy and increased diplomatic tensions between Italy and Tunisia. Some Italians on the right have spread fears that migrants are bringing the coronavirus to the country, despite claims from Italian officials that irregular migrants account for a small proportion of imported cases.

When cases were first reported in Tunisia in March, authorities reacted quickly, closing external borders and most businesses, imposing strict curfews and banning travel between regions. The action paid off. By the time its borders reopened in June, Tunisia had just recorded 1,064 cases and 50 deaths.

But the restrictions are further damaging an economy already plagued by high unemployment, declining purchasing power and stark inequality. Most Tunisians cannot work from home and are thus devastated.

“This complete lockdown has a very different effect in developing countries than in developed countries, where working from home is easier and more people are being formally employed,” said Max Gallien, a political economy researcher at the University of Sussex.

Tourism, vital to the country’s economy, has dried up, with tourism revenue dropping 61 percent in August, according to statistics from the Central Bank of Tunisia. It’s last year, French and Russian beachgoers will fill Zarzis’ tables, according to Sabrine Kilani, who runs the bar at Restaurant Le Dauphin. Observing the empty seat space in the middle of the recent lunch hour, he described this tourist season as “zero.”

As a result of the coronavirus, the country’s economy is expected to contract by 4.3 percent in 2020, according to International Monetary Fund projections, representing the biggest recession since Tunisia gained independence from France in 1956.

Political instability, meanwhile, has exacerbated the crisis. Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh resigned amid allegations of corruption in July, leaving Tunisia without a government at a critical time and further undermining public trust.

Situated on the southeast coast of Tunisia and away from coast guard radar, Zarzis has long been at the forefront of irregular migration to Europe. Fishermen here are proud to have rescued hundreds of migrants who sailed from Libya and were stranded off the coast of Tunisia.

The UNHCR has reported more than 300 people dead or missing in the central Mediterranean this year. Armed with higher-quality GPS devices and knowledge of the sea, Tunisians are often better off than migrants departing from nearby Libya. Even so, Romdhane Ben Amor, communications officer for the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, estimates dozens of people are missing at sea this year.

Slah Din Mcharek, president of the Zarzis fishing association, said every boat leaving Zarzis for Italy today brought one or two young fishermen from their group. “The fishermen, we save people,” he said. “Now, we make ‘sports.’ “

The young house painter, recently released from detention in Italy, said his life plans did not initially include a dangerous illegal trip to Europe. After he received his high school diploma, a university in Paris promised him a place in 2016, he said. However, his visa application was rejected twice.

He ended up painting the house in Zarzis, saving enough to secure a place on a sports boat in 2019. Tunisian coast guards thwarted the first attempt. As the pandemic hit and painting houses became impossible, the painter said he felt he had no choice but to try again, as soon as possible. He took a loan and his mother sold a piece of gold to fund his trip.

When she and her fellow travelers first reached Lampedusa, they spent 12 days at a reception center filled with migrants from various countries, including women and children. He was then placed in quarantine aboard a large ship off the coast of Sicily.

Most Tunisians who travel to Italy, including the painter Zarzis, hope to end up in France. However under the European Union asylum system, the country from which the migrants disembark is responsible for processing their application for asylum or return.

On Wednesday, the EU proposed revamping its system to speed up deportations and allow asylum seekers to be distributed more evenly across European countries.

Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio has repeatedly said Italy regards Tunisia as a safe country and will return all Tunisian citizens who enter irregularly. In late July, Di Maio threatened to withhold development aid to Tunisia until the authorities approved a plan to stem the outflow. Italian and European authorities traveled to Tunis in August to discuss the matter with Tunisian President Kais Saied.

Italy has pledged Tunisia $ 13 million for border control measures. The EU, meanwhile, will extend its existing border management program with Tunisia for 20 months and $ 11.8 million, Hichem Dhahri, spokesman for the EU delegation to Tunisia, confirmed.

Saied called a security-oriented approach to migration insufficient and stressed that Tunisia must create jobs and development.

In recent weeks, coronavirus cases in Tunisia have surged. But there is broad consensus that the country cannot go into lockdown again.

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