African migrants in Tunisia risk all to cross to Europe

So far this year at least 453 migrants have died trying to reach Europe from North Africa, the International Organisation for Migration says.

TUNIS - A growing number of African migrants living in Tunisia is willing to take the risk of crossing the Mediterranean from the North African country and for the first time the majority on the boats trying to cross the sea is not Tunisian.

During the first quarter of 2021, more than half of those arriving in Italy from Tunisia were mostly citizens from sub-Saharan African countries, according to the Tunisian rights organisation FTDES.

So far this year at least 453 migrants have died trying to reach Europe from North Africa, the International Organisation for Migration says.

Around 100 of those had set off from Tunisia’s port of Sfax.

“Despite the shipwrecks, despite our mourning families, we are always ready to risk our lives,” said Prista Kone, 28, from Ivory Coast.

She attempted the crossing last year, but her boat was intercepted by Tunisian authorities.

Kone arrived in Tunisia in 2014 with a degree in business management and plans to pursue her studies.

But without money, she found work as a housekeeper, she said. She also discovered “the extent of racism” in Tunisia which compounds their predicament. Precarious living conditions make them risk their lives without hesitation in a journey to Italy.

“If these people survived a shipwreck at noon, they would be ready to participate in another crossing at 1:00 pm,” said Oumar Coulibaly, head of the association of Ivorians in Sfax.

Coulibaly believes there are some 20,000 people from sub-Saharan nations in Tunisia, nearly two-thirds from Ivory Coast.

“They represent the hopes of their families,” Coulibaly said. “Some came to continue their studies, to work, others were promised huge salaries, but… they were lied to”.

Without employment permits, many work illegally and are grossly underpaid, all the while complaining of abuse by police or citizens even though NGOs were formed by Tunisians to defend migrants’ rights. 

FTDES president Alaa Talbi said migrants who have come for work in Tunisia want to leave, because “neither the legal framework nor the cultural framework favours integration”.

Deals between Italy and Libya, another key jumping off point for Europe, have likewise “complicated departures”, with more migrants trying to leave from Tunisia, he said.

Tunisia’s economy has lurched from crisis to crisis since 2011, most recently due to the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown measures.

With seas calmer in the coming summer months, many expect more Tunisians and African migrants to risk the crossing too.

According to Catholic aid agency Caritas, people smugglers are luring migrants with tales that accommodation and jobs are now easy to find in Europe, claiming the virus has decimated the population.

Sozo Ange, a 22-year-old Ivorian mother, has been in Tunisia for two years.

For her, staying means, at best,  life as a cleaning lady, earning enough to share a tiny room with several others and surviving off “soup from out-of-date turkey”, she said.

“I’ll leave here with my family, it is make or break,” she said, breastfeeding her son.

Her husband, Inao Steave, 34, is employed in a bakery, where he is worked harder than his Tunisian colleagues.

“I can’t let my child grow up like this,” he said. “We are aware of the risks, but we have no choice. We will die or live in Europe!”