People registering at the local Red Crescent office in Medenine on the southern coast of Tunisia have come from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia. They have been waiting weeks for the UN Refugee Agency to decide their fate.
They were rescued from a shipwreck last September by the Tunisian coast guard after their vessel, which had set sail from Libya for Lampedusa, had been drifting in the open sea for around a week.
Berhanu from Ethiopia was on board that boat. He and his wife had paid the lowest possible price of 1,400 dollars for the crossing. He said: “After we had been travelling for two days, the boat developed engine problems and then it broke down. When they set off for Italy, they didn’t load enough food or water so people didn’t have anything to eat or drink. After six days, people began to die. Some of the women were pregnant when we began the voyage. They miscarried. When they reached Tunisia, they were bleeding.”
Going home is unthinkable for those who were on that boat. But life in Tunisia is difficult. Berhanu showed us where the men live, separated from their wives. Sometimes they find casual work in town but it is not enough to afford to live decently. They are all waiting, hoping to claim political exile.
Fifty kilometres away in Zarzis, the coast guards regularly intercept vessels from Libya, making for Lampedusa. Back in 2011 – at the time of the Tunisian revolution – floods of people were trying to leave the country. But local fishermen say that has stopped now.
One told euronews: “Now there are no more crossings. The traffickers have all gone to Libya. These coasts are regularly patrolled. Every three or four months there’s an attempt, but they always get caught.”
One former fisherman told us he had sailed several boatloads of migrants over to Lampedusa, before he was arrested and sent to prison. He showed us one of the routes the lorries used to bring people to the port or to the beach from their hiding places: “We used to put up to 50 people in there. We gave them food and drink and they stayed here for two or three days, until the boat arrived.”
It was a profitable business, tickets being sold for 1,500 euros per passenger, the money split between the boat owner, the captain, and the various intermediaries. But the rush to leave Tunisia only lasted a few months, he says: “Lots of people wanted to leave so suddenly there were more and more traffickers, with all those people wanting to make the crossing. And when there were lots of boats, the prices dropped right down to 1,000 euros per person. So then we cut back on the business.”
Lots of people from Zarzis set sail, leaving their families behind. It is a bitter memory for Mohamed and his wife, whose son died at sea when a boat carrying 120 people to Lampedusa was lost at sea. Slah, a close friend of their son, survived the shipwreck. His visits are a bitter reminder for them.
Mohamed said: “Since what happened to my son I relive the scene all the time. When I see pictures on the television of people making the illegal crossing, or even when I catch a glimpse of the sea, my heart breaks all over again.”
That particular sinking was blamed on the Tunisian navy, accused of having deliberately rammed the boat, causing the deaths of around 30 people. But without solid evidence, the complaints of the bereaved families have led nowhere.
They want justice but many people here also want the EU to change its immigration policy. Mohamed said: “After that last crossing, the EU knows it’s lost. If they let people get visas, my son for example would have got a visa, he would have gone to France to look for work, realised there wasn’t any and then taken his passport and come home.”
But not everyone thinks that easier access to visas is on the cards. And some question the EU’s expenditure. Would the money which is spent keeping people out of Europe be better spent giving them reasons to stay in their home countries? One NGO is working with former Tunisian migrants to rebuild lives in their home country.
Fayçal Dchicha, president of NGOADDCI-Zarzis, told euronews: “Almost the entire budget is spent reinforcing security. There’s no real development programme. Last year there were 15 projects, and this year 18 projects have been set up. We’re in the process of studying a further 63 projects, but there are around 700,000 unemployed people and young graduates looking for work, and we can’t take care of all of them. It just gives a little hope.”
Salem is lucky, and got an EU grant to set up his own business. He went to France illegally via Lampedusa in 2011 and spent time in prison, then he was unemployed and finally came home to Tunisia, where a grant of several thousand euros enabled him to set up his own metalworking business 18 months ago.
He said: “If I’d stayed in France, I wouldn’t have got a job. I’d have been like the others who went there with me. No job, no house, nothing. So I came back and now I’m working, and I can save and make plans for the future. France, even if France said ‘Come, we’ll give you papers, we’ll give you a house and a job’, I wouldn’t go back there. Whatever they offered, I’d still say no to France.”
Moez also got an EU grant to open a grocery three months ago. There’s nothing like being your own boss, he says. After working in Poland, he spent four years in France, where he worked illegally. He doesn’t regret the experience, but wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else: “I saw Europe, I saw how people live there and I saw how our young people live. I also saw how people from our community came back here and fed the dreams and encouraged other young people to leave here. God forgive them, they come here they show off their wealth and their BMWs, their Mercedes, and they lie saying they have two or three bedrooms but in reality all they have is a tiny bedroom two metres square. God forgive them, because lots of people have died.”
Lots of people in Zarzis feel the same way. But still there are always people wanting to leave. Issam is one of them, although he already has a job in Tunisia. He has already set sail for Lampedusa twice. The first time the boat was turned back by the Italian coast guards but the second time he got to France. After two years in the country illegally, he was finally sent home. But he says nothing could persuade him to stay in Tunisia: “It’s fate. Each one to his fate! If you die, you die, if you live, you live. Whatever language I say it in, legally or not, with God’s help or not, I will leave again.”