x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Tunisia's flood of illegal migrants becomes a trickle

Post-revolution Tunisia reasserts its control over illegal emigration as coastguard boats begin again to turn back migrant boats.

Fishermen from Mahdia in the port of Zarzis, Tunisia, which is quiet again after a brief flood of illegal emigrants.
Fishermen from Mahdia in the port of Zarzis, Tunisia, which is quiet again after a brief flood of illegal emigrants.

ZARZIS // Last week a man entered Abdel's small grocery shop in this ramshackle Tunisian port city and asked to rent the room upstairs. He then gave the key to 15 young men.

"That's when I realised they were haraga," said Abdel, who declined to give his surname. "They came from cities in the north."

A trickle of such young men is all that remains of a thousands-strong wave of migrants, known colloquially as haraga, who slipped into Europe after the overthrow of the Tunisian president in January pushed the country into turmoil.

As European countries tighten border controls and Tunisian authorities regain their balance, illegal migration through Zarzis has all but dried up after an initial post-revolution free-for-all.

Zarzis's mayor, Faouzi Khenissi, said: "Most people who wanted to leave have done so For Zarzis, I'd say 90 per cent have gone."

During the 23-year rule of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, most hopeful migrants were stymied by his omnipresent security services, said Anis Chabbi, 30, a fisherman loading nets into his boat at Zarzis's fishing harbour.

That changed after January 14, when anti-government protests toppled Mr Ben Ali and brought down the police-state he had constructed.

"In the first months after the revolution there was a lax attitude in the police and civil service here," said Mr Khenissi. "People who had dreamed of emigrating for years seized the occasion to do so."

Even Tunisia's coastguard initially shied from blocking migrant boats, he said. "When you have a revolution, the street is in charge."

Zarzis became a principal launch pad for thousands of migrants seeking entry to Europe via the Italian island of Lampedusa, which lies closer to North Africa than to Italy.

Two of those men were sons of Miloud Akkeri, a Zarzis fisherman forced to stop working in 1997 after developing heart disease.

"The boys couldn't find work," he said. "The only way to get a job here was to have a high qualification, or to have a piston - someone in power to help you."

Mr Akkeri's eldest son, aged 26, snuck into France three years ago. In January his two other sons, aged 18 and 21, followed their older brother to France.

"The boys just came to me one evening and said, 'OK, we're leaving'," he said. "And they left."

Young men from across Tunisia flocked to Zarzis, paying up to 1,000 Tunisian dinars (Dh1,486) and more for transit to a hoped-for new life in Europe, said Mr Chabbi, the fisherman. "Even by day, the boats were leaving for Lampedusa."

The police did not intervene until last month, said Mr Khenissi, when migrants brawled with policemen and tipped a police car into the harbour.

Tempers have also flared in Europe, with France accusing Italy of failing to secure the frontiers of the passport-free Schengen area of which both countries are members.

Most of an estimated 25,000 Tunisian migrants made a beeline from Italy to their former coloniser, France, home to about 600,000 Tunisians enticed by the French language, which many Tunisians speak, and the hope of jobs.

In Zarzis, walls are daubed with graffiti such as "Vive la France" and the numbers of French areas where Tunisians live: B13 for one suburb of Paris, 93 for another.

Last month France blocked trains entering from Italy carrying Tunisian migrants, refusing to recognise their six-month Italian residency permits.

Under a deal struck last month between Rome and Tunis, Italy issued the permits to Tunisians who had arrived by April 5, while Tunisia accepted the deportation of any arriving afterward.

That deal seems to have marked a turning point. According to Mr Khenissi, Italian and Tunisian coast guard boats have since begun turning back migrant boats.

In Zarzis, those obstacles have discouraged all but a few would-be migrants, said Mr Chabbi and other fishermen.

The fishing harbour is quiet now during the evenings, except for fishermen setting out to place nets and amphorae for catching octopus.

The few remaining migrants in town are reliant on shady networks of traffickers.

On Sunday Abdel arrived at his grocery to find yet another strange man ushering the 15 young men living in the upstairs room into a car. "They're travelling tonight," the man told Abdel.

"That's the first and last time I'll rent to haraga," Abdel said later. "The neighbours don't like it, and I don't like encouraging those young men to risk their lives."

Hundreds of migrants are feared to have drowned in shipwrecks since January while attempting to reach Lampedusa from Tunisia and Libya.

Somewhere in France, Mr Akkeri's sons are still struggling to find work, he said. He declined to give further details because his sons were in France illegally.

"They want to earn money and return to Tunisia. They're over there because of me and my condition," he said. "I'm glad of that. They're men."

jthorne@thenational.ae