Tunisians risking their lives to escape Italy’s quarantine boats

Tunisian migrants and asylum seekers being held on boats off the coast of Italy have drowned or attempted suicide.

The quarantine ship Moby Zaza with migrants on board who have been quarantined and are waiting to disembark, moors in the port of Porto Empedocle, Sicily, Italy, on July 6, 2020. Some 180 migrants rescued in international waters arrived on board the Ocean Viking to be transferred onto the Moby Zaza [Carmelo Imbesi/EPA-EFE]

It was a late spring morning in the Tunisian port town of Sfax and Salah Massoud had no idea his son was leaving him. That morning, 22-year-old Bilel had bought new clothes and gone to the dentist. It was the holy month of Ramadan and, when asked if he would be home in time to break his fast, he replied: “Don’t wait for me, I’ll be at sea.”

Bilel worked as a fisherman, a common occupation in the region. The family lived off fishing and farming, but money was tight. His ambition was to, one day, have enough savings to finish the half-built family home. When Salah called his son’s mobile at 1am the following morning, Bilel again said he was “at sea”. Salah could hear the sound of waves. But hours passed and his son did not come home.

Bilel was one of 13,000 Tunisians who reached the Italian coast by boat in 2020, according to estimates by the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights. A decade since the fall of longtime ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, young people in the North African country are using coastal towns as launch pads towards Europe to escape rocketing living costs and unemployment. At home, hundreds have taken to the streets to protest against corruption and economic inequality.

What happened between May 15, when Bilel’s family last saw him, and May 20, when the Italian coast guard plucked his lifeless body from somewhere in the 2.4km (1.5-mile) stretch of sea between the quarantine boat he had been confined to and the Sicilian town of Porto Empedocle, is hard to ascertain. What is known is that he reached the Italian island of Lampedusa on May 16 and was quarantined on a cruise boat – the Moby Zaza – as part of mandatory measures to contain COVID-19.

A view of Zarzis in the south of Tunisia, where many migrants depart for Italy by boat [Layli Foroudi/Al Jazeera]

He is alleged to have jumped from the Moby Zaza, falling for 15 metres along the Looney Tunes livery on the boat’s flank, in an attempt to swim to shore. According to media reports, riots had broken out on board the ship that day and 14 Tunisian nationals were disembarked by the authorities the next day (May 17) in a bid to quell the dissent.

Italian authorities opened an inquiry into Bilel’s death but, more than 10 months later, it has yet to reach a conclusion. Leonardo Marino, the legal representative for the Massoud family in Italy, told Al Jazeera that he expects the inquiry to conclude that Bilel jumped voluntarily from the boat, into the rough waters, in an attempt to escape quarantine and the risk of deportation.

Bilel’s story is not an isolated one. Three people jumped from the Augusta quarantine boat in October, while others who have been locked up on quarantine boats or in repatriation centres have resorted to equally extreme measures, including self-harming and attempting suicide.

Frustration is running especially high among Tunisian migrants, who face automatic administrative detention and, most likely, deportation without the possibility of appeal, according to a dozen rights groups representing migrants as well as lawyers interviewed for this article.

Salah Massoud and his wife Mounia sitting in their half-built house in Sfax, Tunisia [Layli Foroudi/Al Jazeera]

Fast-tracking the repatriation of Tunisians

Following a five-fold increase in Tunisian migration in 2020 – which has put reception facilities under enormous strain, observers say – Italy has sped up the repatriation of Tunisian nationals, using a string of agreements the country signed with Tunisia since the 1990s.

Despite the EU’s asylum policy, which states that access to the asylum procedure must be granted without discrimination, Jean-Pierre Cassarino, a migration expert at the Brussels-based College of Europe, says Italian authorities are effectively denying certain groups of people the right to even apply for asylum “by shrinking the time and space in which these legal rights can be accessed”.

“Space” is shrunk by denying the possibility to start an asylum procedure on quarantine boats, Cassarino explains, while the “time” in which repatriation takes place is hastened once migrants disembark, leaving little opportunity to file a request and appeal a repatriation order.

These findings are echoed by legal human rights organisations interviewed in the course of this investigation, who see the denial of the right to asylum as part of a growing trend of illegal pushbacks at Europe’s borders.

According to the Tunisian human rights organisation, Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF), fast-tracking Tunisian nationals has already led to some individuals, criminalised for homosexuality or subject to political persecution, being repatriated without receiving adequate protection. While the majority of Tunisians do not qualify for international protection, many may be eligible for residual rights, including family reunification.

For Cassarino, whether or not an applicant is entitled to receive international protection is beside the point. Asylum procedures must be accessible in all circumstances, he says, to avoid setting dangerous precedents. “Once you start limiting the rights of certain groups, where do you draw the line?”

Migrants land in Lampedusa, Sicily, Italy, on August 21, 2020 [File: Elio Desiderio/EPA-EFE]

A game of chicken

Had Bilel survived to tell his story, he would likely have told a version of the same tale heard by the Association for Legal Studies on Immigration (ASGI) time and time again. “As a rule of thumb, a person from sub-Saharan Africa will be given the chance to file for asylum while one from northern Africa won’t,” Sami Aidoudi, coordinator of ASGI’s In Limine project on migrants’ rights, says.

Bilateral agreements signed between Italy and Tunisia, including a new entente forged last August, mean that Tunisian nationals can be hastily repatriated, often with little scrutiny of their individual circumstances.

Italy considers Tunisia to be a “safe country of origin” – a concept introduced in 2018 by the government of Matteo Salvini. Human Rights Watch has warned that “while allowed under international refugee law and European Union law, the use of safe country concepts in accelerated procedures raises concerns over hasty and poor-quality decision-making, especially in complex cases, and the potential for expulsions of people who face a risk of human rights violations.”

ASGI’s In Limine project was set up in March 2018 to monitor human rights violations as migrants and asylum seekers arrive in Lampedusa.

Migrants and refugees land in Lampedusa in the early hours of October 14, 2019 [Pasquale Claudio Montana Lampo/EPA-EFE]

Aidoudi – himself of Tunisian origin – claims that the Italian authorities are resorting to questionable measures to prevent Tunisian nationals from starting an asylum procedure that would delay or prevent their repatriation.

Upon embarking on the quarantine boats, they are asked to sign a pre-filled foglio notizie (notification form). A copy of one of these forms seen by Al Jazeera had been printed out with the boxes already checked, declaring that the signatory intended to look for work rather than apply for international protection. On another version of the same form, a statement had been handwritten in Italian: “I am not interested in requesting international protection.”

Despite the lack of agency migrants and asylum seekers have over this document, it can have far-reaching consequences on their claim to asylum and be used to facilitate expulsion. “We advise them not to sign, but we’re told mediators or police officers have signed in their place,” Aidoudi says.

Refugees and migrants arrive in Lampedusa [File: Pasquale Claudio Montana Lampo/EPA-EFE]

Nassim Garrad, a 22-year-old Tunisian, spent two weeks on a cruise ship before being deported in December 2020. He talks to Al Jazeera by telephone from his hometown, Kssour Essef, where he is currently working odd jobs in construction. “We just signed papers, many of them. In the end, we found out that we had signed papers that ban us from… the Italian territory.” Garrad also claims that he received no information about his legal rights.

He says he wanted to be able to “build a future”. After finishing school and training as an electrician, he was only able to find occasional work on construction sites in Tunisia. A one-day gig would be followed by an average of 10 jobless days. Eventually, he resolved to leave.

To get to Italy, Garrad boarded a 6-metre (20-foot) inflatable boat along with 20 other people.

When he was finally allowed to disembark from the quarantine boat he was placed on, he was expecting to walk free. Instead, he was moved to a detention centre in Turin and, 10 days later, he was on a flight to Tunisia. He was back in his hometown less than a month after leaving.

“I will definitely try to go back [to Europe]. Half the young people in my neighbourhood have made it there,” he says.

Videos received over social media by the campaign LasciateCIEntrare, which opposes administrative detention for migrants and asylum seekers in Italy, show the rising frustration among Tunisian migrants and asylum seekers who feel they are being treated unfairly.

In one of them, a man speaking among a crowd gathered in a narrow passageway says they have received messages from fellow countrymen recounting how they are being forcefully repatriated. “They’re deporting them using extreme violence,” the man says in the video. “Other migrants in Italy are not being deported. We’re the only ones being deported now. Tunisians only. They come here telling us we won’t get deported… Then we find ourselves at the airport…”

Some Tunisians get in touch with ASGI to ask for help to file an asylum request. In order to assist them, Aidoudi has had to play a game of chicken with the authorities. Until recently, asylum-seekers on quarantine boats could send pictures of their hand-written and signed asylum requests over Whatsapp to Aidoudi, who then forwarded them to the competent body for validation.

“Now it has become impossible to find pen and paper,” he claims. “Even when they sign the meals register, the pen has a leash.”

A view of the sea from the archipelago of Kerkennah, Tunisia, another popular departure point for people hoping to reach Italy by boat [Layli Foroudi/Al Jazeera]

When self-harm indicates ‘hope’

Anger and hopelessness have led some migrants to resort to extreme acts. “Horrible things. People swallowing batteries and almost killing themselves in the ugliest ways possible. It’s so desperate,” Garrad says.

The Italian government has not allowed any media or humanitarian organisations to independently monitor the situation on board quarantine boats. The Red Cross, which was tasked by the government with managing testing and isolation procedures, is the only organisation permitted to operate.

Francesca Baile, coordinator for the Migrants’ Operational Unit of the Red Cross, says migrants are tested for COVID upon arrival on the quarantine boat and housed in separate areas of the ferry depending on the result. Those who test negative still undergo a mandatory 14-day quarantine period and are disembarked only if a second swab confirms their negative result.

Baile says no asylum applications are filed during the quarantine period as this “is not among the tasks of the Red Cross”, but migrants are informed of their rights.

A Tunisian man wrapped in a rescue blanket after arriving on the Italian island of Lampedusa in 2011 [File: Carlo Ferraro/EPA]

The Red Cross has not expressed concern about the situation onboard quarantine boats. Biale says the organisation has not faced “particular difficulties” while performing its duties on board but concedes that some migrants and asylum seekers may be under psychological strain. “Those who commit these acts [of self-harm] are clearly having a difficult time,” she says.

Italy’s use of ferries to quarantine migrants and asylum seekers has caused controversy, however, and the Red Cross has been criticised by other humanitarian organisations for aiding the government. More than 150 humanitarian organisations petitioned the Italian government in December to abolish quarantine boats, which they say have inadequate health standards and can re-traumatise those on board.

Human rights organisations – who receive daily Whatsapp messages and videos from the quarantine boats – are highly critical. Yasmine Accardo, a lawyer campaigning against administrative detention and a member of the LasciateCIEntrare campaign group, says migrants “are being detained, they are not heard and have no power [over their future]”.

While self-harm is, for some, a result of depression, Accardo says, for others, it is a means of “last resort”. “Some think they’ll be brought to a hospital and will be able to escape. They are the ones having a positive psychological reaction… at least they’ve got hope.”

Residents protest against the arrival of migrants and asylum seekers on the island of Lampedusa in August 2020 [File: Elio Desiderio/EPA-EFE]

‘Corona was the final straw’

Tunisians are now the largest group by nationality reaching Italy by sea. Ten years since the uprising that overthrew Ben Ali, Tunisia is in an economic crisis, with high unemployment and diminishing purchasing power caused by the dinar shedding half its value against the US dollar over the past decade. The COVID-19 pandemic has been an accelerating factor, with more people bringing their departure forward as work dwindles.

“People don’t go to Europe to get rich, just to be paid normally. Here you work nine hours for nothing,” says Aymen, 24, a student from Bizerte, Tunisia’s northern-most city, from where his cousin took a boat to Italy last summer. He adds: “Corona was the final straw, it opened our eyes to the sadness of Tunisia. You have no work, your boss won’t help you [during the crisis], the government won’t help you.”

A view of the beach at Mahares, Sfax, where many migrants hoping to reach Italy depart [Layli Foroudi/Al Jazeera]

Despite the deep social and economic root causes of the migration phenomenon, Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs Luigi Di Maio threatened in August 2020 to suspend 6.5 million euros ($7.9m) of development funds to Tunisia if the country failed to implement tougher border controls.

The same month, Di Maio, interior minister Luciana Lamorgese and two European Commissioners met Tunisian President Kais Saied in Tunis. According to media reports, Italy pledged 11 million euros ($13.15m) of development funds to Tunisia with the objective of strengthening border controls.

Italy and Tunisia had signed a memorandum of understanding in February 2017, which allocated 165.5 million euros ($197.8m) to combating illegal migration and human trafficking across the Mediterranean over the course of three years.

Observers are unclear as to whether the meeting in 2020 sought to revive the terms of the 2017 agreement. Despite repeated freedom of information requests from human rights groups, the Italian government has not disclosed the terms of the agreement formally.

Italy’s Ministry of Interior did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment and did not provide official figures on repatriations.

Migrants and refugees land in Lampedusa in August 2020 [File: ELIO DESIDERIO/EPA-EFE]

Notice to leave

Bilel’s chances of remaining in Europe, had he not succumbed to the waves in the short stretch of sea between the Moby Zaza quarantine boat and the Sicilian town of Agrigento, would have hinged on how busy the Italian repatriation centres (CPRs) were at the time. According to the Italian government website, CPRs can hold a total of 1,035 people awaiting deportation, but the maximum number is capped at 715. In September last year, Italy re-opened its controversial Milan CPR, which had been closed down in 2013 following riots.

Migrants who are disembarked from a quarantine boat are, as a first option, transferred to a CPR and repatriated. Italy’s Ministry of Interior has not released up-to-date figures, but observers say approximately 120 Tunisian nationals are deported each week, transferred directly from a CPR to the airport and placed on one of three different flights under the terms of an agreement with Tunis.

When the seven CPRs scattered across the Italian peninsula fill up, authorities hand out a legal document requesting that the migrant leave the country within 15 days and then they set the person free.

Many then take this opportunity to cross from Italy into other European countries. One 21-year-old Tunisian, Brahim Aoissaoui, arrived in Lampedusa on September 29 and was released with an order to leave following isolation on a quarantine boat. He is reported to have continued his journey to the French coastal town of Nice where, a month to the day of his arrival, he stabbed three people to death at the church of Notre-Dame.

The attack was used by the anti-migrant League party of Matteo Salvini to criticise the Interior Ministry for failing to deport Aouissaoui back to Tunisia. Salvini, himself interior minister until September 2019, is currently on trial for denying a rescue boat carrying 147 migrants and refugees permission to dock during his mandate. The migrants and refugees, who had been rescued at sea after a shipwreck, were finally allowed to disembark after six days at sea.

Refugees and migrants arrive at the Mar Grande base by ferry from Lampedusa before being transferred to a camp set up at a former airport near Taranto, in 2011 [File: Renato Ingenito/EPA]

A security mindset

During the pandemic, human rights issues appear to have taken a back seat on the political agenda. In its 2020 annual report, Italy’s office of the National Guarantor for the Rights of Persons Deprived of Liberty (NGDL) said the political debate about checks and balances used in administrative detention – or “detention without crime” – has been set aside.

“In Italy and elsewhere, administrative detention is gaining a political and social connotation. This is impacting our mindset as a country,” the annual report said.

Massimiliano Bagaglini, whose unit within the NGDL is tasked with overseeing the rights of detained migrants, says that administrative detention should be a means of last resort only. “We accept that this is happening for a limited period of time, but there must be counterweights to mitigate this measure,” he adds.

His office has identified a number of shortcomings in the administrative detention process, such as inadequate access to legal assistance and freedom of communication.

For instance, fixed telephone lines from which migrants can make phone calls are a requirement in all CPRs, but Bagaglini says inspections carried out by his office often found phones to be out of service.

Italian police officers escort migrants and refugees onto repatriation flights in April 2011 [File: Carlo Ferraro/EPA]

Gennaro Santoro, a lawyer with the civil rights watchdog, the Italian Coalition for Civil Liberties (CILD), adds that some detainees in CPRs claim their mobile phones have been seized.

Those who do manage to contact a trusted representative may be able to file an asylum request to claim the right to remain in Italy, but even that is often not enough to avert deportation.

“[The authorities] will say that the asylum request [is] invalid,” says Santoro. This is because it contradicts the statement given in the foglio notizie – the pre-filled notification sheet in which the signatory declares him- or herself to be looking for work.

On April 16, 2019, the Supreme Court in Trapani ruled on the inadmissibility of this document in the case of a Tunisian man, saying the foglio notizie is a document signed “with no assurance regarding the presence of a qualified interpreter” and, as such, it could not invalidate an asylum request as ruled by the peace court.

Under the Italian legal system, judgments issued by courts are not viewed as setting the law and do not set a precedent for similar subsequent cases. Santoro has continued to battle this practice, but due to the hastened pace of deportations, it is often impossible to bring a case to court in time, he says.

Bilel Massoud’s father, Salah, and stepmother, Mounia, stand outside the house they were building together in Tunisia before Bilel, 22, died at sea after escaping from a quarantine boat off the coast of Italy last year. ‘He was a pillar of the household, our big support,’ says Mounia [Layli Foroudi/Al Jazeera]

CILD and ASGI found the pace of repatriations has been hastened by means of a ministerial circular issued by the Ministry of the Interior – and seen by Al Jazeera – that was used to bestow “extraordinary powers” on police officers, who can greenlight the repatriation of Tunisian nationals on the basis of the declaration made on the foglio notizie.

This seemingly goes against the law, Santoro argues, which states the claimant cannot be deported until a final decision has been reached by a judge at the competent territorial committee.

Adjudicating each case individually can take weeks or months, however, during which the claimant remains in custody in a CPR.

In 2020, at least three people died while in CPRs, according to the NGDL. Aymen Elkmeni, a 34-year-old Tunisian national, died on January 12, 2020, after spending nine months in a centre near Caltanissetta, Sicily. His death was attributed to “natural causes”, according to Italian media reports.

Two other people died in 2020 while in administrative detention in Italy. On January 18, Vakhtang Enukidze, a 37-year-old Georgian national, died of his wounds following a beating by guards at the CPR in Gradisca d’Isonzo, Apulia. Riccardo Magi, a parliamentarian with the Radicals party, visited the compound in the aftermath of the death, collecting witness accounts of repeated beatings by police officers. A murder inquiry was opened by the public prosecutor’s office in Gorizia.

A 28-year-old Albanian national named Turja Orgest was reportedly found dead in his cell in July while also detained in Gradisca d’Isonzo. The authorities have not issued any statements about the two deaths, but investigations are ongoing.

The London-based watchdog, Refugees Rights Europe describes administrative detention in Italy as characterised “by a lack of procedural and legal safeguards, as well as insufficient external access to and monitoring of detention sites”.

Lawyers at the Tunisian branch of ASF say they have assisted victims of torture by the Tunisian authorities and individuals criminalised for homosexuality in filing an appeal against the Italian authorities’ decision to deport them, from Tunisia following repatriation.

“Tunisians are immediately categorised as people who want to work. They [the Italian authorities] don’t look at any other criteria. They don’t let them ask for asylum,” says Zeineb Mrouki, adding that ASF is prepared to take certain cases to the European Court of Human Rights should they exhaust all other means.

The organisation argues that the European Union’s security-focused approach to immigrants not only breaches human rights but also fails to stem migration flows. “It is not by reinforcing the borders [of countries that people are leaving from or arriving to] that you are going to stop people from leaving [their countries of origin],” ASF’s Mrouki says. “Despite this approach, people are still leaving – they go, they come back, they leave again.”

Bilel’s grave on family land in Ouled Bousmir [Layli Foroudi/Al Jazeera]

‘He just wanted a better life’

Garrad is a case in point. “I will definitely try to go back to Italy,” he says. Next time, he is aiming to sail straight to Sicily.

“One guy tried nine times! Now he’s in France. He would go back after each failure, as if he were taking a bus.”

As for Bilel’s family, the death of a son also means the loss of a much-needed source of income. “He was a pillar of the household, our big support,” says Mounia, Salah’s wife, who became a stepmother to Bilel and his two sisters after their mother died in 2006.

Sitting on the terrace of the house they had been building together, little by little, for years, she wonders how they will cope without him. “He would bring things for the house, give money to his dad, pay the debts at the corner shop.”

On June 16, Salah received his son’s remains in a box via air freight thanks to assistance from the Tunisian non-government organisation La Terre Pour Tous, and buried them among olive trees near where he would one day have finished building the family house.

“[His friends] told him he would get a job, that’s why he left, just like all Tunisian young men,” says his sister, Sana, 21. “He just wanted to seek a better life.”

Source: Al Jazeera