Two years after a Tunisian Coast Guard boat ran into a medium-sized fishing boat, on board of which were dozens of young men who had stealthily left Zarzis Port in Southeastern Tunisia, heading towards the Italian coast, families of the missing are still demanding that authorities disclose the results of the related investigation.

Two years after a Tunisian Coast Guard boat ran into a medium-sized fishing boat, on board of which were dozens of young men who had stealthily left Zarzis Port in Southeastern Tunisia, heading towards the Italian coast, families of the missing are still demanding that authorities disclose the results of the related investigation.

The 98 survivors have unanimously agreed that the Tunisian Coast Guard boat – called Hurriya 302 – deliberately intercepted the course of their boat without using the internationally adopted alarming tools, causing its split into two parts and claiming the lives of 23 illegal emigrants. Rescuers  only recovered five bodies.

“I did not imagine that my dream of improving my family’s social status would turn into the tragedy of receiving the body of my son Sufian inside a casket, coming from Italy,” said 62-year-old Mamiya Ben Yahia bitterly.

“He was unemployed for four years,” Mamiya said, “and as of 2009 he started thinking of emigrating to Europe.” Her son dreamed of following in the footsteps of his friends, who found financial success in Italy and France. When he failed to obtain a visa Mamiya remembered, he decided to risk riding the boats of death from the shore of Zarzis. “He paid 1,200 dinars (US $748) to the organizers of these illegal journeys.”

Mamiya said she indirectly participated in killing her son when she sold a 300 square-meter plot she inherited from her father to cover the expenses for her son’s trip. “I was hoping that Sufian would get the family out of poverty and enjoy a better life in a European country.”

Death or imprisonment

Thirty-seven year-old Ezzidine Babo, from Gabes (southeast of Tunis), is one of hundreds of Tunisians who have not been lucky enough to reach the shores of Italy. “I have tried five times to reach the island of Lampedusa  from different areas in Tunisia, but several factors prevented me from achieving my dream, including sudden weather fluctuations and also coast guards,” he said.

Ezzidine’s attempts ended with six months in prison in Sfax and a fine, which forced him to give up the idea of emigration for fear of doubling the punishment.

Ezzidine stressed that the amount he paid in the five times was more than 6,000 dinars (US $3,740), which he managed to save through smuggling goods and oil products from Libya to the cities of Southeastern Tunisia. The psychiatrist in Sfax prison persuaded Ezzidine to stay in Tunisia and set-up a business by obtaining a bank loan from a development association.

Ezzidine’s statements concerning the psychiatrist’s advice match the views of Muhammad Raqi, a 26-year-old information graduate, who does not believe in emigration to Italy despite his inability to find a job in the last four years. “It is impossible for those who could not succeed professionally and socially in their country and among their families to be able to change this situation among people who neither speak their native language nor share their same culture, customs, and traditions,” he explained.

Civil society moves

This view is shared by many young men who have recently participated in a meeting organized by the Arab Institute for Human Rights, which featured movies on secret emigration and its risks. Attended by young men who failed to sail stealthily to the Italian coast and who talked about their experience and the horrors they witnessed, this meeting aimed at making those who were still dreaming of emigration learn the “lesson.” That initiative was held as a part of the contribution of the components of civil society to raising awareness of the risks of this phenomenon, which is widespread among young Tunisians.

In fact, this phenomenon dates back to the late 1990s and was limited to a particular social group – uneducated – before it attracted thousands of Tunisian young men, including graduates, because of what they considered “the government’s inability to integrate them into the labor market.”

In order to avoid the death of illegal emigrants, the government has come up with security solutions, represented in intensified security patrols along the coastal strip, and also enacted legislation that lawyer Ghanem Ftirish considers strict enough to deter violators, whether emigrants or organizers of the journey.

The Secret Emigration Combating Law, says Ftirish, is related to two types of crimes: stealthily crossing the borders and organizing the journeys, which has a more severe punishment of three months to twenty years imprisonment with a fine of more than 100,000 dinars (US $62,300) since it is considered a serious crime whose perpetrators could be accused of forming an organized gang.

A study conducted by the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (TFESR) on secret emigration shows that 40,000 Tunisians have illegally left the country since the revolution, 24% of them are students. The study states that many families that have lost their sons have been eager for the last year and a half to know of their fates.

State responsibility

The study mentions that the first secret wave of emigration— when about 5,400 young men departed Zarzis soon after January 14, 2011, taking advantage of deteriorating security situation and bad weather— forcing national and international human rights bodies to take a serious look at the sudden magnitude of clandestine emigration.

“We have conducted an investigation in Zarzis and Lampedusa to learn the reasons of this emigration. We have found out that these youths are from slums and that organizers of illegal journeys are brokers and agents who belong to dangerous gangs and who pay no attention to the safety of people,” said Abdurrahman Hathili, TFESR head.

Other TFESR studies show that 55% of the emigrants live within the poverty belt in Tunis, Thala, Kasserine, and the countryside of Kairouan, Siliana, and El Kef.

Tunisia, says Hathili, is required to provide equipment necessary for the relief of those who need help in its territorial waters. He stresses the need to profoundly discuss the issues of secret emigration, determine responsibilities, emphasize freedom of movement and rights of illegal emigrants, combat new slavery—which has appeared especially in Italy where illegal emigrants are outrageously exploited, especially in farming—and combat smuggling networks and gangs that run secret emigration.

The anguish of the families of the missing and young men’s ambitions of emigrating to Europe to escape a harsh social situation, constitute challenges for which the Tunisian authorities still have to find radical solutions.  In addition, a quick diplomatic move is required to release those detained in shelters, especially in Italy, and settle the situation of thousands of Tunisians who have been fortunate to reach Europe and live in its cities with no legal residence documents.