Every morning, the young Tunisian Jilani Balsnon throws open the doors of his warehouse in GabèsEvery morning, the young Tunisian Jilani Balsnon throws open the doors of his warehouse in Gabès in southern Tunisia and in drive a queue of four-wheel-drive vehicles, al loaded with thousands of liters of gasoline smuggled from Libya.
His three brothers help him syphon the trucks‘ contents into plastic containers to be distributed to black market dealers who offer the gas at a cut-price rate compared to local gas stations.
Balsnon has been working in this illegal business for 11 years, during which local authorities have generally turned a blind eye to the trade, allowing citizens to earn a living due despite a lack of development in poor areas.
Balsnon started out with a US$300 capital which spent on a small amount of gasoline which he sold on the road. His business went from strength to strength: He now owns a large warehouse and has direct connections with smugglers‘ supervisors and shop owners who sell fuel in the black market.
Everyday Tunisians and Libyans deliver smuggled gasoline from Libya across the border to Tunisia where it is sold to smugglers who deliver it to warehouses. “Every day, I receive some 3,500 liters of gasoline and then sell it to dozens of traders who, in turn, sell them on the street,” says Balsnon. “Everyone benefits from this business. It helps them cope with the rigors of life.”
Smugglers and traders determine the price of smuggled fuel according to the relative security in the two countries. The more checkpoints they have to cross and the more tension and conflict in the region, the higher the price of gasoline.
Thousands of Tunisian drivers buy Libyan gasoline due to its low prices and good refinement. The liter price does not usually exceed 50 cents in cities close to the Libyan-Tunisian borders.
The Tunisian Customs Authority denies that gasoline is smuggled through the official border crossings of Dehiba and Ben Gardane. However, it acknowledges that smuggled fuel passes through other points on the borderline despite establishing a network between Tunisian and Libya.
Shops selling smuggled gasoline are spread throughout residential areas in Gabès, bringing danger into the communities. Within a less than one month, three fires have broken in such shops, claiming the lives of many young workers in them, including three young men in the last fire alone.
Ali Shamseddine, a resident of the neighborhood where the last fire took place, says he pressed charges with the judiciary to shut down several illegal sale points next to his house, fearing for the lives of his family. But although the judiciary ordered to shut down the sale points, the police refused to enforce the order or even warn traders to vacate their warehouses.
“The smell of gasoline makes my children choke,” says Shamseddine. “Our houses are at risk due to potential fires, especially since natural gas and electricity networks link to our houses through pipes under the sidewalks of these illegal shops.”
Observers say the authorities usually turn a blind eye on this business because it provides jobs for many unemployed people. Nearly 5,000 people work in illegal fuel sale in southeastern Tunisia. This business is no longer limited to school dropouts since hundreds of university graduates have started work in the growing sector.
And the work pays well: The Study Office of the Tunisian General Labour Union estimates that in some cases, the monthly income of smugglers is several times higher than that of civil servants. Meanwhile the earnings of legal gas stations, especially in southern Tunisia, have been dented by the smuggling boom.
Nasser Shalabi, a station owner in Gabès, says last year the sales of his station dropped by more than 65 percent, forcing him to lay off eight workers. He plans to raise the matter with the Employers’ Organization to discuss why the authorities do not challenge the illegal trade.
The Tunisian government acknowledges that the black market represents 50 percent of the formal economy, which pushed it last month to form local committees to fight smuggling, aiming to reduce the rate to 20 percent.
The Ministry of Trade underlines the need to secure the border areas to minimize smuggling.
Ridha Chkoundali, economics professor at Tunis University, however, doubts Tunisian authorities are serious about preventing smuggling. “Since the revolution, all governments have feared all forms of social tension because the informal sector has created thousands of jobs and become the source of income for families in southern Tunisia,” he says.
Chkoundali believes that the unemployed resort to smuggling due to a lack of job opportunities. And the formal economy, with its strict laws, expensive taxes and complex bureaucracy, does not attract many young people. “Treating the chronic diseases the Tunisian economy suffers from may help the government in its anti-smuggling effort,” he says. “Security solutions are not enough. The economic situation should be examined and investment-promoting solutions need to be found.”
Chkoundali argues that smuggling gasoline from Libya is costs the state huge losses every day because fuel is subsidized. Meanwhile, gas stations earnings as well as of foreign companies operating in oil extraction has declined, meaning the state earns less sales taxes.