RAS JEBEL, Tunisia (AP) – It used to be that only young unemployed men who departed from Tunisia’s rugged north coast for Sicily, usually opposed their parents in hopes of a better future.
Now Tunisian families, even those with jobs or seemingly good prospects, are following the trail across 130 kilometers (80 miles) of open water – nearly 10,000 since the start of the year and far more than they have left in recent memory. The expanse of the Mediterranean can be dangerous, the chances of securing asylum in Europe are nearly zero, and lengthy quarantines on ferries anchored offshore will be followed by expulsion if they are caught.
But many departing from the Bizerte coastline think that the potential rewards far outweigh the risks. Those with relatives in Europe are those with new cars and improved kitchens.
“My son is one and a half months old, and if I get the chance to move soon, I will live a better life,” said Tarek Aloui, 27, who has tried 10 times to reach Italy since then. 2014. He only succeeded once, last March at the height of the coronavirus lockdown, and was promptly driven back home, where he was jailed for six months. He was not affected.
“All Tunisian men, women and even children want to go this way,” he added.
Their arrival has put pressure on Italy’s southern region’s ability to host them amid the coronavirus pandemic, given Italy’s quarantine requirements for anyone arriving from outside the EU.
When a large fishing boat of 450 Tunisian people was towed into port on the island of Lampedusa in Sicily on August 30, several residents took to the dock to protest, shouting at them to return. Italy’s former interior minister, anti-migrant League leader Matteo Salvini, criticized the government for allowing them in and noted sadly that most would never be granted asylum as they fled the non-existent “notorious Tunisian war”.
To safely isolate new migrants, the Italian government has assigned five ferries for new arrivals to complete 14 days of quarantine, with 2,238 currently on board. But there are also centers on the ground for others, and the interior ministry laments that Tunisians, more than others, tend to try to escape from reception centers and avoid quarantine requirements. Their flight has sparked protests by locals fearing new infections in the wake of Italy’s brutal coronavirus outbreak, especially since the arriving migrants have been linked to several dozen groups recently.
Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese has traveled to Tunis twice since July to negotiate with the new government on the need to stem the tide, including an offer of assistance from Italy for better coastal patrols. He blamed Tunisia’s increase in arrivals on the country’s socioeconomic problems that have been exacerbated by COVID-19, and has offered Italy assistance to address them.
He told a parliamentary committee last week that since August 1, Italy has again repatriated Tunisians who do not qualify for asylum, after reaching an agreement with the Tunisian government to accept two flights a week with 40 Tunisian citizens each. He said the number of weekly flights will increase from October. Tunisian migrants fleeing a deteriorating economic situation are generally not considered eligible for asylum.
While Tunisia was by far the largest group of migrants in 2020, 23,517 migrants in Italy this year are a fraction of the nearly 120,000 people rescued at sea and brought to Italy in 2017, or more than 181,000 who arrived in the peak year. 2016. However, arrivals this year are more than the numbers seen in the previous two years.
More striking is the proportion of migrants who are Tunisian – 9,284 or 42% this year, compared to 23% last year and 22% in 2018. The previous year, Tunisia accounted for only 5% of arrivals, with Nigeria at the top.
Romdhane Ben Amor, spokesman for the Tunisian Economic and Social Rights Forum, said this level of emigration had not been seen since the 2011 Arab Spring uprising began in Tunisia.
“It is no longer limited to those who drop out of school, are unemployed and have no education,” he said.
He said between 150 and 200 families had left Tunisia by boat, evading the north African country’s coast guard despite increased surveillance paid for by Italy and other European Union countries.
“We can see it on surveillance cameras at the port,” said Mohammed Taweb, a fisherman in Bizerte. He said small groups had come to steal the ship’s engines in preparation for their departure, but only from the cruise ships – not from the fishing boats he and others needed to make a living. He said he understood why they left, and believed it was up to the Tunisian government to sort things out.
Ghofrane Hlel’s parents fear it is too late for their son, who left last September at the age of 20 and went missing at sea. Her mother, Kalthoum Fraj, has resigned herself to her destiny, but not to uncertainty.
“I accept everything that happened to him, and I do not hold anyone accountable,” he said. I want him to live or die, and I’ll accept one of them.
Nicole Winfield in Rome and Lori Hinnant in Paris contributed to this report.