Tragic drownings prompt soul-searching over fate of Tunisian youth

October 22, 2017
Harga. Relatives of Tunisian migrants, who drowned when their boat sank in a collision with a navy vessel, react as they leave a hospital morgue after identifying the bodies of their families in Sfax, on October 17. (Reuters)

Tunis - The drowning of at least 34 young Tunisians trying to reach Italy prompted soul-searching about why large numbers of Tunisia’s youth are leaving the country despite its democratic transition.

A rickety boat carrying about 100 illegal migrants collided with a Tunisian naval vessel off the coast of Kerkennah, resulting in the deaths. The accident October 9 stirred anger among Tunisians who say the government has not done enough for its youth.

Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi called on Prime Minister Youssef Chahed to identify those responsible for the deaths. Chahed had called the collision a “national disaster.”

Mounir Hanablia, a Tunisian cardiologist, echoed those words. “What happened… was a huge na­tional disaster that must shake up our collective consciousness if we believe we are still one nation,” he said.

“Many illegal migrants from various nationalities have died during risky journeys in the Medi­terranean but this is the first time a boat crammed with illegal mi­grants was slammed by the vessel of the navy from the country of migrants.”

The drownings come amid a wave of illegal migration from Tu­nisia when overall migration to Europe was falling.

Flavio Di Giacomo, spokesman for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), said earlier in October that 1,400 Tunisians had arrived in Lampedusa and western Sicily in September.

The IOM said the number of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean had dropped to 143,000 from January 1 to Octo­ber 11, compared to 318,700 in the same period in 2016. The change was attributed to a decline in il­legal migration from Niger and to new measures enforced in Libya.

Reports by the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES) said many in Tunisia still wish to migrate, however. A 2017 report said half of young Tunisians from low-income areas had con­sidered leaving the country and one-third said they were prepared to do so illegally.

A report by the forum said 40% of all Tunisians hope to leave the country and that families often carry the cost of illegal journeys.

“What is happening to a great number of our youth is the logical result of our collective failure to give them hope, courage and open the ways for them to prevent their disappointment and their deliber­ate departure to meet death and get lost,” wrote Khaled Haddad in an editorial in the Arabic daily Al Chourouk.

“The loss of the potential of our youth at a crucial time of the de­mographic transition in the coun­try is the proof and the evidence of our failure to take advantage of the youth’s potential before our society turns increasingly older,” he added.

Local demographers warned that Tunisia could, like Europe, soon face an ageing population problem, as the number of people 60 years or older has dispropor­tionately risen in the last two dec­ades.

A significant majority of Tu­nisia’s approximately 11 million people are aged 15-59, the demog­raphers added but such a “golden age” has come with a significant unemployment problem. Most of the country’s 650,000 unem­ployed are young and more than 100,000 teenagers drop out of school every year, the majority without mastering a second lan­guage or employable skills.

Many are disenchanted and speak out against the country’s elites on social media. “This coun­try failed to give me a decent edu­cation or a decent job. It left me with no choice but to leave it and migrate,” read one typical com­ment.

Following the recent disas­ter, government spokesman Iyad Dahmani prompted anger after telling a local radio station that illegal migration by young Tuni­sians was a trend dating to the 1990s and that leaving the country showed a lack of national loyalty.

Tunisian sociologist Amel Mous­sa responded that “no one risks his life and throws himself to the death at the sea if he does not feel symbolically rejected by his coun­try.”

“I think that the sense of belong­ing to a country is not a slogan but should stem from tangible things like a job, stability and the exist­ence of ruling elites that work to meet our expectations,” Moussa said.

Journalist Soufiene Lassouad writing in Al Chourouk, said “the ‘crime’ of the boats carrying thou­sands of young Tunisians daily to Italy is shared by all politicians who lied to the Tunisians over the past seven years and prom­ised they would make good about achieving their dreams.”

“Tunisians are regretting now the bygone days before 2011 when the prices were not high and the flow of lies was not so broad,” he added.

Mohammed Kasdallah, a retired army colonel, dismissed allega­tions that Tunisian soldiers were responsible for the drowning in­cident and expressed shock over anti-military sentiments on social media.

Writing in Business News maga­zine, Kasdallah said: “My God, why do such tension, resentment, hatred and grudges exist? Why are we so bitter, disappointed and de­feated that we plunge our beauti­ful country into an unbearable at­mosphere of mistrust, suspicion, fear and death?”