Zarzis, Tunisia – Ramadan Mohammed Arte, an 18-year-old Somali, sat against a warehouse wall at the port in the southern Tunisian town of Zarzis. A collection of blue jeans was spread out next to him, drying in the late morning sun.
Arte had arrived in Zarzis the night before, after leaving the Libyan port of Zuwarrah on a small rubber boat carrying 85 others, all trying to make it to the southern Italian island of Lampedusa, a common destination for undocumented migrants crossing the Mediterranean.
Keep readinglist of 4 items
In international waters not far from Italy, the boat began taking on water and the engine broke down.
“We were afraid to die,” Arte said of the March incident, even though he says he had prepared himself for such a possibility before he began the dangerous journey from Somalia more than a year ago.
Using a satellite phone provided by the smuggler who arranged the trip – which cost between $1,000 and $1,500 per person – the migrants on the boat sent out a distress signal. A Tunisian navy vessel was close and responded, rescuing the migrants and bringing them to Tunisia.
Arte was one of 17 Somalis on the boat. He left his hometown of Mogadishu after his father and several of his brothers were killed in the conflict with the rebel group al-Shabab.
“I’m hoping to go to Europe to try to get peace,” he said. “We are searching for a good life.”
The other migrants on the boat, from Nigeria, Senegal, Mali and Gambia, were also trying to make it to Europe for a chance at a better life.
Abubacarr Jawara, 28, from Gambia, said his family was counting on him to make it to Europe so he could send money back home to help support them. “We left Gambia … so that we can help our families and help ourselves in the future,” he said.
Emmanuel Dumbiry, a 17-year-old Nigerian Christian, said he left his home in Kano because of attacks by Boko Haram. After travelling for four months to reach Libya, he was concerned that he would now have to return home.
“If you send me back to Nigeria, there is no peace there,” he said. “I would like to go to Europe … to go to school.”
Every year for the past three years, the Tunisian navy and coastguard have rescued several migrant boats in distress, headed from Zuwarrah to Lampedusa. On April 2, two more boats carrying 178 people were rescued. Once in Tunisia, the people from the boats join a population of other migrants, refugees and asylum seekers who enter the country by land, sea or air.
I'm hoping to go to Europe to try to get peace. We are searching for a good life.
Most of the refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in Tunisia are concentrated in the southern governorate of Medenine, which borders Libya. For economic migrants who do not fall under the mandate of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), officials in Medenine often turn a blind eye, allowing them to work in the region undocumented before many choose to illegally cross the border into Libya and attempt the journey to Europe another time.
More than 170,000 undocumented migrants reached Europe in 2014 by crossing the Mediterranean, mostly embarking from Libya. Aid organisations estimate that another 3,000 perished attempting the journey. Two-thirds of those who crossed were fleeing conflict in the Middle East and Africa, and the remainder were economic migrants, according to Lorena Lando, the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) mission director in Tunisia.
Despite it being early in the season, unprecedented numbers of migrants have already braved the crossing in 2015. Following the recent capsizing of a migrant boat, almost 1,800 have already perished this year. In 2014, aid organisations estimate that over 3,000 died attempting the journey.
Tunisia’s share in the movement of people across the Mediterranean is comparatively small. Since 2013, around 1,500 people have arrived in the country on rescued boats. Of those, some 300 were people of concern for UNHCR, according to IOM statistics. Seven hundred other asylum seekers also entered Tunisia in 2014 by plane and land, according to UNHCR data. There are also an unknown number of economic migrants who cross into Tunisia illegally from the Libyan and Algerian borders, according to Mongi Slim, the Tunisian Red Crescent’s regional director in Medenine.
People of concern for UNHCR, or asylum seekers, are individuals who claim that their lives would be in danger if they returned to their countries of origin. UNHCR considers their cases through a refugee status determination process, according to Nawfel Tounsi, director of UNHCR in Tunisia.
Individuals coming from recognised conflict zones, such as Arte from Somalia, immediately fall under the mandate of UNHCR. Other asylum seekers, such as Dumbiry from Nigeria, who said he was fleeing Boko Haram, are considered on a case-by-case basis.
Once someone is granted refugee status, they receive documentation to live in Tunisia and qualify for employment programmes and other forms of support from UNHCR, Tounsi said.
Economic migrants, such as Jawara from Gambia, are given about three weeks of support, including shelter, medical checks, food and hygiene kits from the Tunisian Red Crescent and IOM. They have the option for IOM to coordinate a voluntary return to their country of origin, Lando said. In 2014, IOM assisted 218 migrants in Tunisia with the voluntary return process.
Those who choose to stay past the period of support often end up working as undocumented construction or agricultural labourers in Medenine. “Here in Medenine, nobody will ask for papers,” Slim said.
For migrants in Tunisia, the goal is not to stay, Slim said, because the country is struggling with its own economic and unemployment crisis. A recent report released by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, highlighted Tunisia’s economic woes, stating that the country’s struggles with youth unemployment were “a true social tragedy”.
Since the country’s revolution in 2011, Tunisians have also been crossing the Mediterranean illegally by boat because of the economic situation. The number of Tunisians attempting the journey peaked in 2011 at around 40,000, according to Lando, before dropping off dramatically in 2013. However, the number began to climb again in 2014, she said.
Because of Tunisia’s weak economy, migrants often find themselves working longer than expected to save up enough money to re-enter Libya and attempt the journey to Europe another time. This may explain why authorities in Medenine are happy to turn a blind eye to economic migrants as long as they do not pose a security threat, Slim explained.
Even some people who receive refugee status in Tunisia from UNHCR cross the border with Libya and try to make it to Europe by boat again, according to Tounsi.
Arte said that staying in Tunisia was not his ultimate goal. “My hope was not to come to Tunisia,” he said. “My hope is still to go to Europe.”
Jawara echoed Arte’s sentiment. He had already tried to cross from Zuwarrah once before, but the boat sank and he spent three hours in the water before being rescued by the Libyan coastguard.
“That was not my aim,” he said, “to come here and face all these sufferings and then go back to Gambia in vain.”
Follow Eric Reidy on Twitter: @eric_reidy