Probing the fate of Tunisia’s missing migrants

Commission to investigate what happened to 520 people who disappeared after illegally crossing to Italy.

Tunisia missing
Members of Land for All have organised numerous demonstrations to draw attention to the situation [Thessa Lageman/Al Jazeera]

Tunis – “Look, this is my husband arriving on Lampedusa,” said Om Elkhir Wertani, pointing at a vague photograph from a television broadcast, which depicts a boat filled with men.

Her husband, Nabil Guizawi, was among a group of at least 520 Tunisians who illegally crossed to Italy shortly after Tunisia’s 2011 revolution and then disappeared. According to his family, Guizawi arrived in Italy safely before he vanished.

Guizawi, then 35 years old, worked temporary jobs and had difficulty paying the rent, Wertani told Al Jazeera. “We saw a steady stream of people in our neighbourhood coming back from Europe with a new car and beautiful clothes,” she said. But while she deemed the sea voyage “too dangerous” for her husband to attempt, in late March 2011, he abruptly left. The couple’s three young children are still hoping for his return.

“I keep in mind that he could be dead,” said Wertani, who works as a private tutor in Tunisia. “But who knows? He might be in prison and unable to call us.”

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In the lawless period just after the fall of former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, there were few active coastguards and policemen, and many young Tunisians decided to risk crossing the Mediterranean.

According to estimates from the organisation Boats4People, around 40,000 Tunisians attempted this crossing in 2011. The Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights found that around 1,500 Tunisians drowned or disappeared that year. So far, the families of 520 people have officially declared them missing.

Many video recordings were made of the migrants who arrived in Italy, and several people recognised their family members in the images. Of course, they may have just been seeing what they wanted to see.

by Federica Sossi, professor, University of Bergamo

Family of the missing Tunisians have united through the organisation Land for All, whose office is located in a drafty garage in Tunis. The group has organised numerous demonstrations to draw attention to their situation. But although three members of the European parliament raised questions about the issue last year, the European Commission could not provide any conclusive answers.

The Tunisian government has since announced it will investigate what happened. In March, the government established a commission – consisting of civil servants from various ministries, DNA specialists and family members of the missing Tunisians – tasked with working alongside the Italian interior ministry to get to the bottom of the disappearances.

It remains unclear as to whether all the missing Tunisians actually arrived in Italy or whether some drowned en route, said Federica Sossi, a professor at the University of Bergamo in Italy who has researched the issue.

“During that time, many video recordings were made of the migrants who arrived in Italy, and several people recognised their family members in the images,” Sossi told Al Jazeera. “Of course, they may have just been seeing what they wanted to see.”

Wertani and Imed Soltani – the president of Land for All, whose two nephews disappeared in 2011 – recalled visiting various migration centres in Italy in 2012. “Some of the people there recognised a few of the missing Tunisians from the photos we showed them and told us that they had stayed there,” Soltani said.

“We have no evidence that these people didn’t drown,” added Helmi Tlili of the Ministry of Social Affairs, which is coordinating the government commission. “But we’re not ruling anything out and are going to investigate all the images and videos. It could be that some of these people are in prison or in migration centres, or they may have gone into hiding from the law.”

Soltani said he had heard rumours that the missing Tunisians were taken by aeroplane to Libya, or that the Italian mafia sold their organs. Tlili dismissed such notions as “just rumours”, but Sossi said such outcomes were a possibility. In 2008, Sossi noted, Italy and Libya entered into an agreement about the return of migrants, and early 2011 was a very chaotic time on Lampedusa. “Thousands of Tunisians arrived and not all of them were registered,” she said.

RELATED: Tunisian youth frustrated by unemployment

By next spring, the inquiry commission hopes to be able to tell family members more about the missing migrants’ fate, Tlili said. But not everyone is optimistic.

“All this time, the Tunisian government has done very little for these families,” Sossi said. “I don’t expect that there is now suddenly the will to get to the bottom of this.”

To properly investigate the matter, she added, all the recordings from the coastguards would have to be analysed, as would the telephone calls placed by the Tunisians making the trip. In addition, the unidentified bodies in the Lampedusa cemetery would have to be examined. Tlili did not go into detail about what specific elements the commission would address.

Tunisians still travel regularly in rickety boats to Italy, many disappointed that the dreams of the Tunisian revolution did not materialise. They are looking to escape high prices, low wages and unemployment, paying smugglers 700 to 1,500 euros ($780 to $1,675) for the trip, because it is often impossible for them to get visas.

Pointing to the poor neighbourhood where many of these residents hail from, Soltani said: “I tell them that they might not survive the crossing. Then they answer: ‘I’m already dead. This is no life.'” 

Follow Thessa Lageman on Twitter: @thessalageman

Source: Al Jazeera