Illegal migration across shores: Tunisians, Italians face different quandaries

Italian authorities complain about surge in illegal migration, especially from Tunisia.
Wednesday 15/07/2020
A file picture shows rescued illegal migrants at the port in the Tunisian town of Zarzis, some 50 kilometres west of the Libyan border. (AFP)
A file picture shows rescued illegal migrants at the port in the Tunisian town of Zarzis, some 50 kilometres west of the Libyan border. (AFP)

TUNIS--With their country faced with an economic crisis made worse by the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, a growing number of young Tunisians could be seeking ways to migrate, even if illegally, experts say. On the other side of the Mediterranean, Italians, scarred by the fight against the pandemic, are not in a welcoming mood for new illegal migrants.

But conditions in North Africa, with Libya in the throes of war and Tunisia plagued by political feuding and limited economic prospects,  may be encouraging unemployed young people to seek illegal migration in larger numbers.

Mustapha Abdelkebir, president of the Tunisian Human Rights Observatory, sees a combination of factors at play.

“The reasons for the surge in migration has to do with objective factors related to the overall economic situation, the increase in unemployment, the prevailing anguish especially among youth because of the false promises made by successive governments,” he told The Arab Weekly.

Tunisian women, who had lost their children in the Mediterranean sea as they attempted to cross into Europe by boat, carry portraits of their children as they gather during a demonstration in Tunis. (AFP)
Tunisian women, who had lost their children in the Mediterranean sea as they attempted to cross into Europe by boat, carry portraits of their children as they gather during a demonstration in Tunis. (AFP)

“There is also the economic fallout of the pandemic and the protracted unemployment of family providers, which have led whole families to try to emigrate,” added Abdelkebir.

According to government and UN reports, Tunisia’s unemployment rate is expected to surge to 21% at the end of the year. GNP growth will retract by about 7%.

Political instability and continued feuding among the political class is hindering any confidence about the future.

“You have to table in also the absence of any light at the end of the tunnel since last elections, political instability and the lack of any clear vision. Because of this, everybody is considering emigration,” said the Tunisian rights activist.

The raging war in Libya is also depriving many young Tunisians of the prospect of travelling to the next-door oil rich country seeking employment or trade opportunities. With authorities concerned about infiltration of their borders by terrorists or the possible overflow of the armed conflict into their country, the army has intensified its watch of border movements. A number of incidents involving smugglers trying to force their way through have been recorded in recent weeks.

“We at the observatory expect a spike in migrants much more than in the past because of the impact of Libya’s geographic environment, specifically developments in Libya, which used to provide a significant employment market for Tunisians.”

Another dimension of the illegal migration problem is that of unemployed graduates. A third of Tunisia’s jobless population is comprised of young people with university degrees. “We are witnessing a brain drain that includes a huge outflow of medical doctors. This is motivated by fear of the future,” noted the Tunisian activist. A segment of the unemployed graduates, such as medical doctors or computer engineers, who are in demand in Europe, is likely to seek more legal venues for migration. Other graduates are tempted, however, to join the other would-be- migrants willing to leave the country by any means possible.

“The particular increase in the number of unemployed graduates has adversely affected the way of thinking of young people and has instilled their minds with fear of the future,” added Abdelkebir.

From the other side of the Mediterranean, Italians are complaining about a surge in migrants. The Italian interior ministry said Monday that arrivals are almost one-third higher so far this year than last.

This year, more arrivals are coming from Tunisia, with boats landing without assistance from the Italian coast guard or charity organisations.

Most migrants land on the Italian islands of Lampedusa and Sicily, while others make it to southern parts of the mainland.

More than 1,250 migrants arrived in the past three days, according to the latest ministry figures, which were released as Italy held a conference with EU and African nations on the ongoing crisis.

Ministry figures showed that a total of 8,988 migrants have reached Italy so far this year, compared with 3,165 for the same period in 2019, but far fewer than the 17,296 migrants who arrived over the same time span in 2018.

This year, the majority of migrants are Tunisian, followed by those from Bangladesh, Ivory Coast, Algeria and Sudan, the data showed.

Italy, which is struggling to recover from a devastating coronavirus crisis that has killed nearly 35,000 people, is now seeing hundreds of migrants arrive at its shores every day – desperate people it says it cannot accommodate without help from other European countries.

On Monday, interior ministers from Algeria, France, Germany, Italy, Libya Malta, Mauritania, Morocco, Spain and Tunisia met via video conference to “strengthen cooperation between law enforcement agencies” through police training and funding technical equipment, Italy’s interior ministry said in a statement.

New guidelines for dealing with the crisis will be implemented within a few months, it added.

The recent arrivals have sparked protests by locals in some areas, after a few dozen migrants tested positive for the coronavirus after disembarking.

With the fraying authority in Tunisia and the chaotic situation in Libya, the Italians in Lampedusa and elsewhere might have to brace for more illegal migrants in the future.