Magharebia (Washington DC)

2 November 2012

Tunisians Risk Death for Dream Across Sea

Tunis — "I've killed him. This is my fault. I shouldn't have taken him. I saw him cling to a woman and saw them drown together." This is how 27-year old Faten now speaks about the recent death of her five-year old brother. "I wanted a better life for him. But everything ended at sea."

Faten, 27, and her little brother were among the 136 Tunisian harragas aboard a boat that capsized September 7th near the Italian island of Lampedusa. Dozens perished in the Mediterranean, mere kilometres from Italian soil.

"Once again, the waters around the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa have played host to a tragedy, highlighting that the number of people dying on Europe's doorstep is still increasing," Amnesty International said of the tragedy.

Last year, some 1,500 migrants lost their lives attempting to reach Europe. Yet illegal immigrants still prefer to throw themselves into the unknown rather than remain in their home country.

"My son was 22 years old, unemployed. I didn't know that he was planning to emigrate; otherwise, I would have prevented him. I heard the news only when it was too late, when his sister called him and found out that he was at sea. Hours later, we learned he was among the missing," Belgacem Gannouni told Magharebia.

"He was dreaming about a better future, but failed to find a job that would ensure him a good income. His dream ended before it even started," Gannouni said through his tears.

Illegal immigration spiked in Tunisia after the revolution. Last year was exceptional in terms of illegal immigration attempts towards Italy from the Tunisian coast, including Zarzis and Sfax. Many died at sea.

An official report says that the number of Tunisians who immigrated to Italy after January 14th, 2011 exceeds 30,000.

"We cannot accept that hundreds of people are dying in the Mediterranean," Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki said October 6th at the 5+5 Dialogue in Malta, a gathering of heads of state from Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Mauritania, Tunisia and five European countries on the other side of the Mediterranean.

Each year, thousands of illegal migrants attempt the crossing from Africa to Europe in overcrowded and unseaworthy vessels.

Marzouki announced a task force aimed at discouraging this migration, notably by better co-ordinating maritime resources.

"There are Tunisian, Libyan children, sometimes very young kids, who die in shipwrecks. Each shipwreck is a catastrophe... and cannot be accepted," Marzouki said at the Malta summit.

Illegal immigration highlights the tough social conditions in Tunisia, where the number of unemployed people last year reached 700,000.

The current government is facing harsh criticism for its failure to create job opportunities for young people. Another source of frustration is its perceived inability to control its coasts; something that many consider to be one of the main reasons fuelling the illegal immigration phenomenon.

"Illegal immigration has its own economic, social and psychological motives," says political analyst and journalist Noureddine Mbarki. "Young people feel that there's no hope for them in their home country. These factors were already there before January 14th, but young people in post-revolution Tunisia shouldn't be feeling this loss of hope."

For its part, the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) on September 11th said that security solutions do not address the real reason that young Tunisians are willing to immigrate illegally via the death boats. The union called on the government to seriously deal with the unemployment crisis.

The UGTT also argued that the best way to solve the immigration crisis was through serious and equal co-operation between southern countries - Tunisia in particular - and the Italian government.

Maghreb and European states agree on the issue. The "Malta Declaration" issued at the conclusion of the "5 + 5 Dialogue" last month stressed that illegal immigration "cannot be managed purely through control measures" such as border checks or repatriation of those who manage to get across to Europe.

"It also demands concerted action to tackle the fundamental causes of migration along with the development of an efficient, quick and tangible solidarity" between the countries concerned," the heads of state said.

Tunisia's geographical proximity to Europe makes its coasts a popular embarkation point for young people trying to make their way across the Mediterranean.

Some are able to start a new life. Many more make the trip in vain. The story of Sami Naciri, a 27-year native of Sidi Bouzid, started three years ago. He was arrested by the Italian coast guard and repatriated to Tunisia, where he was sentenced to one year in prison.

"I couldn't find a job here, so I tried to improve my standard of living by going to Europe," Naciri says. "Many of my friends made it to Italy and returned with cars and money. I tried to do the same, but I was unlucky."

Even the high cost of the trip - about 1,500 euros - is not enough to keep Naciri from someday trying again.

"I no longer have anything to lose here in Tunisia," he tells Magharebia. "My father and mother died, and life here is tough. The dream of going to Europe is still haunting me, in spite of everything. I feel I'll find a better future there."

Despite the threat of apprehension by coast guards or, worse yet, drowning at sea, many young people are determined to try their chances anywhere other than Tunisia, where the unemployment rate has reached 18%.

Indeed, an opinion poll conducted last year by Tunisia's state-run radio found that 47.2% of Tunisians believe that the main goal of illegal immigrants is to escape unemployment at home.

"I'm a day labourer and my conditions are very harsh," Tunis resident Marwen Issaoui says. "I've been extremely patient, but gained nothing. If I stayed here, I wouldn't be able to realise anything. Maybe when I leave, I'll find a better life."

"I know that this might cost me my own life, but I'm not afraid," Issaoui adds. "Everyone dies, sooner or later."

Poverty and lack of opportunity compels these young Tunisians to give in to the call of sea, even if it could mean death, sociologist Hayet Ben Salem says.

"As long as young people don't see solutions in the short run in their own country, and don't find the sufficient care and attention which the authorities promised them, they will inevitably look for another place to realise their goals and hopes," Ben Salem adds.

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