Sfax, Tunisia – Having attempted the journey twice in the past six months, Mohammed Sowe, a Gambian man in his mid-20s, has no illusions about the danger that awaits refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.
The first time he tried to travel from the Tunisian port of Sfax, the boat he was on was stopped by Tunisia’s coastguard. During his second attempt, the sea almost took the lives of Sowe and the other passengers on board the flat-bottomed, keelless boat.
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“The water was coming up over the sides,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that the waves were so violent that the passengers of the self-crewed boat were forced to make the decision to abandon their 350km (215-mile) journey after four to five hours at sea.
“The water was filling the boat, so we turned back,” he said on Thursday.
News of Wednesday’s deadly capsizing of a boat off Tunisia was just beginning to trickle into the open areas around the medina of Sfax where migrants cluster together for safety during the night.
Italian state television RAI cited four survivors who were rescued and brought to the island of Lampedusa, who said 41 other passengers on the sunken boat were likely dead.
According to the survivors – two men, a woman and a 13-year-old boy from the Ivory Coast and Guinea – the crudely assembled metal boat had begun to take on water soon after leaving.
After continuing on their course for six hours, one survivor later recalled: “Suddenly, we were overwhelmed by a giant wave.”
The news of this shipwreck along with his own terrifying experience was not enough to dissuade Sowe from trying again to make the journey to Europe as soon as possible.
“You have to do it. You have to,” he said, gesturing to the sun-bleached square of dirt on which he sleeps and saying young Tunisian men, some armed with machetes, prey upon him and other refugees constantly.
“Europe is the land of opportunity,” he said.
For the hundreds of other refugees who fled their home countries and now sleep rough in the dirt of the public park at the back of the medina, the perils of future journeys on board unsafe boats pale next to the horrors of their past.
According to the Italian Ministry of the Interior, more than 78,000 people have crossed from North Africa to Italy this year, more than double the total from last year.
More than 42,000 departed from Tunisia. A withering economy there combined with an explosion in racist violence, triggered by a speech made by President Kais Saied in February, has added urgency to the often deadly exodus of refugees to Europe.
The ferocity of the pogroms that rocked Tunisia on the heels of the president’s speech appears to have partly subsided.
However, in Sfax, resentments and prejudices live on as increasing numbers of men, women and children continue to arrive, unemployment is high and the government neglects basic services, such as leaving the city to fester in its own rubbish for days on end.
“They came for me last night, the young Tunisian men,” said a 24-year-old Gambian man.
“That was the third time in the month since I lost my house,” he added, referring to a wave of attacks that began in July. “They took my phone and my passport.”
Many people from sub-Saharan African countries who were both living in Sfax and planning to sail for Europe were evicted from their homes and sacked from their jobs in July when the death of a local man, 41-year-old Nizar Amri, said to be involved in routine attacks on the Black community, led to an outpouring of violence.
Homes were ransacked by mobs, and their occupants, including children, were thrown into the streets.
The authorities intervened, and social media footage showed security officers bundling families into buses. Many of these people then ended up abandoned without food or water at Tunisia’s borders.
“They have taken many of my friends to the desert,” the 24-year-old said of the authorities.
“Some went to the Algerian border, some to the Libya border. Some have [since] been in contact [by WhatsApp] from Niger,” he added.
Interior Minister Kamel Fekih has denied and taken issue with criticism directed at Tunisia from international NGOs and the United Nations, telling lawmakers: “The allegations about expulsion operations are unfounded.”
In July, European Union leaders and the Tunisian government signed what they call a strategic partnership, which aims to combat undocumented immigration and boost economic ties between the bloc and the North African country.
The European Commission chief said at the time that the bloc would allocate 100 million euros ($112m) to Tunisia to help it combat undocumented immigration, but rights bodies and Mediterranean rescue missions have condemned the deal, calling it “dangerous”, and have questioned how it will protect vulnerable people.
Libya and Tunisia announced on Thursday an agreement to share responsibility for about 300 refugees and migrants abandoned at their joint border, some of whom have been languishing there for more than a month.
That agreement is also attracting controversy. Libya, torn between competing militias, has been accused by the UN and rights groups of subjecting asylum seekers to torture, rape and enslavement. Deporting refugees to Libya, especially against their will, may constitute a further breach of international law.
“Libya cannot be considered a safe country for migrants,” said Salsabil Chellali, the director at Human Rights Watch Tunisia. “The migrants especially have been very clear that they do not want to be taken to Libya, where they risk serious harm. All have said that they would much prefer to remain in Tunisia.”
While Tunisia continues to be dogged by accusations of racism, for many refugees in Sfax, what they have left behind is far worse.
Rabih described the horror he and his family went through in Sudan.
“My father, mother and two brothers and sister were all killed” in the fighting that destroyed their home in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, the 27-year-old said.
From Khartoum, he travelled by foot through Chad, Niger and Algeria and on into Tunisia. The journey took months.
“Algeria is a bad place for us,” he said. “They round up all the migrants and force them into the desert back to Niger because they will not accept [us] in Algeria,” he said.
For Rabih, like everyone else who lives in his scattershot camp in a park in Sfax, the ultimate aim is Europe
While some international and local NGOs provide occasional food, water and medical care, conditions remain desperate.
Rabih had few illusions about Europe and the challenges that await him there if he is able to reach it. Nevertheless, his voice rose as he gestured around the dirt park, where only mattresses and the shade of a few palms offer any degree of human comfort.
“These people are all refugees,” he said, “but they have no legal way of reaching Europe.”
“Look,” he said, “Look around. This is how we live. This place is no good for us.”