TheGuardian.com: Africans’ dreams of starting a new life in Europe turn to nightmare in Tunisia
Posted by: Berhane Habtemariam
Date: Thursday, 09 November 2023
Thousands make the perilous trip to the top of Africa hoping to find a future across the Mediterranean. But Tunisia’s crackdown on boat crossings has left many in limbo
Amel Rachdi in Tunisia. Photographs by Amine Landoulsi
Thu 9 Nov 2023 08.00 CETLast modified on Thu 9 Nov 2023 10.18 CET
It has taken nearly two years and a huge amount of money for Yanelle* to make it from her home country of Cameroon to Tunisia. Forced by circumstances on the ground to take a circuitous route far longer than the 3,000km between the two countries, she passed through state after state across northern and central Africa, looking for a place she could stay and work. The journey has taken more of a toll than she could ever have imagined.
Armed conflict and political instability at home drove the 39-year-old to embark on the gruelling trek, as it has for thousands of others. Yanelle’s journey ended at the top of Africa, just across the sea from Europe. But a recent crackdown by Tunisian authorities on small-boat crossings has jeopardised her chances of making it out, and the harrowing ordeal of her journey so far have destroyed her physical and mental health.
Thousands like Yanelle, leave behind countries with battered economies, where jobs are scarce and pay is low, to come to Tunisia with their hearts set on Europe, a short but dangerous boat ride away. According to a recent UNHCR report, of 143,211 immigrants arriving in Italy between January and 30 October across the Mediterranean, 91,875 came from Tunisia, 44,032 from Libya and the remainder from Algeria, Turkey and elsewhere.
“If I could go back in time, I would never leave Cameroon,” Yanelle tells the Guardian, while waiting at the UN refugee agency’s (UNHRC) shelter in Tunis. “I would rather die in the fighting than experience what I’ve been through.”
While making her way through Senegal, Yanelle was captured by human traffickers. “They held me for a week. I was raped, abused and tortured before I managed to escape,” she says, her hands trembling in distress.
From there, she headed to Kenya, then Guinea-Bissau, and next to the Gambia, where she worked as a street vendor to make a living.
“When I managed to secure a place to live, two men broke into my house and raped me,” she says, breaking down in tears.
Deciding to leave the country after the assault, she followed a Cameroonian friend’s advice to approach people smugglers, who took her and others through Mali, into Algeria until they reached Tunisia – with hopes of one day crossing the sea to Europe. “We faced hunger, abuse and bandits who robbed us and raped women in broad daylight and in front of everyone, who idly watched. Those who fell ill or weak were left behind,” she recalls.
As Tunisia scales up measures against people smugglers and immigrants, many like Yanelle are unwilling to risk being caught. After finally arriving in Tunisia, Yanelle has accepted that Europe – and her dream of a better life there – has never been further away. Having sought asylum in Tunisia, she is now trying to recover with counselling offered at the Tunis UNHCR shelter.
In July, the European Union offered a €700m (£610m) deal to cash-strapped Tunisia to curb migration into Europe, as part of its strategy to reduce the influx of refugees from Africa through outsourcing border control to governments on the other side of the Mediterranean. That same month, Tunisian authorities reportedly expelled hundreds of sub-Saharan African asylum seekers into the scorching heat of the desert borders with Libya. Dozens were reportedly found dead before Libya and Tunisia offered shelters to those who survived.
Although Tunisian president, Kais Saied, eventually rejected the pact with the EU, his government continued its crackdown on African immigrants and human smugglers.
On 16 October, a Tunisian news agency said coastguards “thwarted” 668 attempted sea crossings in the previous month, involving 9,580 people – 3,486 of whom were Tunisians. The statement also said that 346 smugglers and facilitators of migration were apprehended in the same period, and 12,459 migrants from sub-Saharan African countries were prevented from entering Tunisian soil.
Ramadan Ben Omar, spokesperson for the Tunisian Forum of Economic and Social Rights, says that Tunisian security authorities have ramped up their efforts to stop migrants in boats from leaving its shores. “The recorded numbers of irregular migration attempts foiled by Tunisia are approximately 10 times more than those recorded three or four years ago,” he says.
Tunisian authorities have also upgraded the legal system to bring more of the apprehended human smugglers to trial. Malek Khaldi, a member of the National Authority to Combat Trafficking in Persons, says: “The number of cases reviewed before courts in 2022 reached 650, up from the average of 30 to 50 cases that made it to courts in previous years.”
Amid these tightening restrictions, the numbers of asylum seekers in Tunisia has risen, says Mustapha Djemali, head of the Tunisian Refugee Council, a partner of the UNHCR. “Until 30 September, 10,834 people have applied for asylum, compared to 8,940 recorded in all of 2022,” he says.
According to Djemali, the majority of the immigrants arriving to Tunisia are from Syria, Ivory Coast, Sudan and Cameroon – countries whose economies are reeling from years of unrest and instability, leaving many unable to secure regular work and make ends meet. Now Tunisia’s crackdown is encouraging many of those who have successfully made it to Tunisia to stay put.
Mariam*, a 34-year-old from Mali, has a large family to support back home and wasn’t able to find a job that paid enough in a country where nearly 20% of a rapidly growing population live in extreme poverty. So in early 2022, telling no one, she left for Europe, hoping that the next time her family heard from her would be through a money transfer.
But in October 2023, passersby found her critically ill on the roadside in the Tunisian city of Kasserine, and took her to the city’s hospital where she received medical care. She is now being looked after in a shelter for abused women. Mariam tells the Guardian she was robbed, raped and all her papers, including her passport, were stolen. “I can’t go back to Mali. I have a responsibility to my family, and I can’t make a living there,” she says.
For Martial, a 34-year-old law graduate, it was the 2013 coup in his home country of Central African Republic that drove him to leave, having narrowly survived being kidnapped and tortured by armed militias. “I was one of the few who came out alive. I was advised by a friend in Tunisia to come here, complete a two-year diploma to enhance my employment chances, and then head to Europe.”
Now, six years down the line, he realises his plans are futile. “I’ve completed my diploma but, in the current economic difficulties facing Tunisia, I’m unable to find a decent job, and it’s becoming increasingly challenging to cross to Europe. I’m stuck here for now,” he concludes.
Similarly, 28-year-old Nasra from Hodeidah in Yemen, says her family, including her husband and eight children, aged from one to 11, were heading to Europe via Morocco where they have relatives ready to help them. But during their journey, which took them through turbulent Sudan and left them near starvation in Niger, they changed course to Tunisia.
“We were dumped by Algerian border police in the deserts of Niger for a week with no food and only six bottles of water, which we left for our children,” says Nasra. “It was a near-death experience. No shelter, no food, and dodging bandits and border control. We’re lucky to have made it safe.”
Her husband, determined to secure a better future for his family, crossed the Mediterranean and made it to the Netherlands three months ago. There, he hopes to settle his legal status and bring his family to join him.
“It was just too risky to put our children through more threatening situations,” says Nasra. For now, she, like so many others, lives in limbo, reliant on aid and unable to plan for any kind of future.
This story is published in collaboration with Egab. * Names have been changed or only single names used to protect identities