Faced with brutality and rising smugglers’ fees, people temporarily put plans of reaching Europe on hold.
MEDENINE, Tunisia — At a café next to a shelter for asylum seekers some 100 kilometers from the Libyan border, Senait recounts, in a hushed voice, what brought her to Tunisia.
The 16-year-old, who fled Eritrea after her parents died, planned to cross the Mediterranean from Libya to Europe. Instead, the rubber boat on which she attempted the journey was intercepted by the Libyan coast guard and she spent the next six months in smugglers’ warehouses and detention centers, where she says she was abused by militiamen and forced to undergo an abortion. With the help of a sympathetic guard, she eventually fled to Tunisia.
Senait’s story — her name has been changed at her request — is becoming increasingly familiar to NGOs working in the North African country. In the first two months of 2019, around 300 people, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, have arrived here, fleeing violence and abuse in Libya.
None of them initially planned on coming to Tunisia. Faced with the inhumane conditions at migrant camps in Libya and rising smugglers’ fees, they temporarily abandoned plans of reaching Europe to pursue what they saw as their best chance for survival.
“The arrival numbers are on the rise, which is unusual at this time of the year,” says Mongi Slim, who runs the NGO Tunisia Red Crescent in Medenine, a town in southeastern Tunisia, not far from the Libyan border.
‘Libya is a prison’
For many of the new arrivals, crossing the border to Tunisia was the only way to escape an impossible situation in Libya.
According to international aid organizations, since the EU-Libya deal was put into place — which stipulates that Libyan authorities intercept migrant vessels in its territorial waters and bring migrants back to shore — migrants have become trapped in a cycle of violence and abuse in Libyan detention centers.
A recent Human Rights Watch report found that migrants in Libya “face inhuman and degrading conditions and the risk of torture, sexual violence, extortion, and forced labor.” Human Rights High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein called the EU’s deal with Libya “inhuman.”
Migrants are fleeing to Tunisia because they are “desperate” to get out of Libya, said Matteo De Bellis, a researcher at Amnesty International.
“Libya is a prison,” he said. “They feel safer here than they did in Libya, but at the same time they feel stuck.”
Word is out
The Red Crescent oversees three shelters in Medenine — one for migrants, one for asylum seekers and one for women and children — with the support of International Organization for Migration and the U.N. Refugee Agency.
There are no other migrant shelters in Tunisia. The country — which has no domestic legislation on asylum — is a signatory of the Geneva Conventions, meaning the UNHCR deals with asylum requests on its behalf.
There are some 1,500 refugees and 500 asylum seekers in Tunisia, according to Mostapha Mohamed Abdelkabir from the Arab Institute for Human Rights, an NGO that helps refugees access education and health care services.
“The situation in Libya is deteriorating, and the word is out that there is a migrant shelter in Tunisia,” says the Red Crescent’s Slim. The shelters are overcrowded or close to maximum capacity, he adds. “People are sleeping in the corridors, but at least they are safe.”
The Tunisian government said last month it plans to shut down the shelter for migrants, which has an official capacity of 85 but hosts some 200 people, due to overcrowding. Authorities moved most migrants to a building rented by the Red Crescent in the neighboring town of Zarzis, where some 68 migrants rescued at sea by the country’s coast guard already live in emergency housing. Others were placed in private apartments in Medenine financed by the UNHCR and IOM.
After arriving in Medenine, migrants have 60 days to decide whether they want to apply for asylum in Tunisia or opt for the “voluntary return” program run by the IOM.
If an asylum application is rejected, the options become: leave the shelter and stay in Tunisia illegally, or pay smugglers to get back to Libya and try to cross over into Europe again.
For most, Tunisia is a detour, and they are not keen to stay. Opportunities are scarce in a country dealing with an unemployment rate of 15 percent, as well as crumbling public health care and education systems.
There is no available data on how many migrants decide to stay and work in the informal economy, including low-paying agriculture and construction jobs.
“Most of them do not see themselves staying in Tunisia for a long time, they want to get a job to send money home, but they see no opportunities,” says Amnesty International’s De Bellis.
And they’re not the only ones who feel the country is a dead end, he says. Locals, too, want out.
Until recently, Tunisia was a country of emigration, not immigration. The exodus of young Tunisians — known in Arabic as harqa, which translates as “burning” one’s papers — has intensified since the country’s 2011 revolution, as people leave in search of better economic opportunities.
According to the UNHCR, Tunisians were the most numerous nationality to reach Italy by sea between January and September last year, making up 21 percent of arrivals by sea.
Not enough jobs
Morad, 34, drives a cab in the Tunisian port city of Zarzis. Although his two brothers have found work in France, he stayed behind to support his wife and three children.
He understands the urge to risk your life to seek a better life in Europe, he says: “Life is already very expensive if you are by yourself. When you have a family, and your child gets sick, it’s a real disaster. This is why people risk their lives to cross the sea.”
For many of the new arrivals — like a 21-year-old from Cameroon, who asked that her name not be used, who fled her country after her fiancé was killed in violent clashes in 2017 — returning home is not an option either.
“I am grateful that Tunisia is giving me shelter, but I want my son to get a good education, and it is impossible here. I don’t know what to do,” she says. She lodged an asylum application in Tunisia eight months ago, after she escaped a detention center in Libya with her newborn son, and is still waiting for a decision.
Senait, the 16-year-old Eritrean who fled Libya, has received refugee status. Some might consider her lucky. But she sees little opportunity for herself in Tunisia.
“There is no future for me here,” she said. “At school I don’t understand anything. Nobody talks to me. I don’t speak Arabic. And there are not enough jobs even for the Tunisians.”
“I want to get an education, a secure life. I want to go to Europe or to America.”