‘I lost two sons’: Tunisians’ journey by sea to Europe

As frustration over the economy boils over in Tunisia, groups fear more and more youth will take risky treks to Europe.

Hamed Rhimi says two of his sons left Tunisia by boat for Europe and he hasn't heard from one since [Jillian Kestler-D'Amours/Al Jazeera]
Hamed Rhimi says two of his sons left Tunisia by boat for Europe and he hasn't heard from one since [Jillian Kestler-D'Amours/Al Jazeera]

Ouardia neighbourhood, Tunis – Hamed Rhimi reaches into his coat’s breast pocket and pulls out a see-through plastic pouch, a little larger than the size of his hand.

He shuffles through several folded up pieces of paper until he finds what he’s looking for: two official Tunisian identity cards.

The country’s flag – red and white, with a crescent and star at the centre – is on the top left-hand corner of each card, while the unsmiling faces of his two sons stare back at him in black and white.

“I didn’t know about their plan to leave the country in this way,” said the 53-year-old father of four, solemnly.

Sitting outside the small, one-room workshop where he repairs old television sets and radios in Ouardia, a southern neighbourhood of Tunisia’s capital, he explained that his son, Soufiane, was 19 when he left Tunisia in 2008.

Three years later, another son Wissam was also 19 when he took the same risky journey across the Mediterranean Sea as his older brother: both young men chose to migrate to Italy on boats with the help of people-smugglers.

Rhimi’s sons Wissam (left) and Soufiane went to Europe by boat [Jillian Kestler-D’Amours/Al Jazeera]

Soufiane left via Libya while Wissam took a vessel from the Tunisian port city of Sfax hoping to find high-paying jobs in European countries and make enough money to help support their family.

They are just two of many Tunisians who have taken dangerous, undocumented journeys to Europe for years in search of work and a better life.

While the crossings are certainly not new, some now fear the country’s increasingly dire economic situation and widespread lack of jobs will push even more young people to try to cross the Mediterranean once winter is over.

Since he left Tunisia in 2011, Wissam’s whereabouts remain unknown, Rhimi said. His other son, Soufiane, has been in and out of jail because of drugs and other illegal activities.

Despite this difficult history with undocumented migration, Rhimi said he can only watch as his youngest son Souhail, 17, contemplates making the same choice as his older brothers.

He is almost resigned to the possibility that one day Souhail will be gone.

“I’m tired,” Rhimi said. “I’m always explaining to [Souhail], ‘Look how I lost your two brothers.’ But he doesn’t understand what I’m saying because at night he sits with other kids in the neighbourhood and they talk about leaving for Italy.”

Thousands reach Europe

Most Tunisians leave for Europe from the country’s coastal cities, such as Sfax, with the help of smugglers who take them to Italy by boat.

Others have been smuggled out of Libya where African asylum seekers have reported widespread torture and mistreatment. Recent media reports also revealed how some asylum seekers in Libya are being sold into slavery.

After the 2011 revolution that toppled Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, tens of thousands of Tunisians migrated without permits to Europe, with most arriving on Italy’s Lampedusa island and the Italian mainland.


The number of crossings stabilised in the years after the uprising, but there has been an uptick in undocumented crossings in recent months.

Last October, about 2,700 people crossed to Italy from Tunisia, and almost all of them were Tunisian citizens, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) reported.

Tunisia’s struggling economy and its high unemployment rate – about 35 percent of Tunisian youth are unemployed – have been blamed for pushing many to take desperate journeys abroad.

This month, the government’s 2018 budget came into effect, raising taxes and the price of several basic goods, including gasoline and food.

The austerity measures led to widespread protests across Tunisia and calls for the government to cancel the budget altogether.

Economic and social issues are the main factors pushing youth to migrate to Europe, according to the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (TFESR), a research group.

“The absence of development, the weak economic situation in Tunisia seven years after the revolution, the violation of economic and social rights, and political instability are the factors for migration,” the group said in a report last year.

Most people leaving Tunisia are between the ages of 20 and 30 and “are uneducated youth who are unemployed or have precarious jobs”, TFESR said.

Nicholas Noe, editor of MideastWire.com, a newswire that translates articles from the region into English, said Tunisia’s economic problems stem from a nexus of control that exists between security agencies such as the police, traditional mafias, and more than 100 families that hold monopolies over key industries.

“If the [European Union] does not want to have another failed state on the Mediterranean, it’s going to have to decide whether [it wants] to tax hair gel and have social revolution, or address the fundamental problems at the elite level,” Noe told Al Jazeera.

Widespread frustration

One in three young Tunisian men living in rural parts of the country (33.4 percent) are not employed, in school or a training programme, according to 2014 World Bank figures.

In Sidi Bouzid, the city where the 2011 revolution began, 24-year-old Mahran Alaoui said he did not even have enough money to approach the smugglers who could take him by boat to Europe.

Sharing a cigarette with three friends on a city bench, Alaoui said he left school at age 13 and is currently unemployed. He sometimes does shifts as a server in a restaurant but said that only brings him 15 Tunisian dinars ($6) for 12 hours of work.


“We’ve reached the peak of hopelessness,” he told Al Jazeera.

“But at least we have a belief in God. Otherwise, we would have committed suicide.”

Mohamed-Dhia Hammami, a Tunisian political analyst, told Al Jazeera that frustration has also increased among educated Tunisian youth, who have been unable to find jobs after graduating.

He said several hundred Tunisians from the towns of Moulares and Mitlawi, in the western governorate of Gafsa, recently crossed the border without permits into Algeria in search of better opportunities.

A few days later, several dozen others attempted to get to Algeria through the official border crossing, but they were turned back, Hammami said.

“They are leaving a boat that is [sinking],” he said.

Ardhawi (right) and Tlili say they will emigrate after graduating [Jillian Kestler-D’Amours/Al Jazeera]

Sidi Bouzid high school students Hayat Ardhawi, 17, and Mariam Tlili, 16, said they were already thinking about where they would move if they got the chance to leave Tunisia.

“After I finish school I want to go to Canada,” Ardhawi said. She told Al Jazeera she wants to be a doctor, but “in Sidi Bouzid, there’s nothing”.

Tlili said she wanted to live and work as a midwife in France. “We love Sidi Bouzid,” she added. “We’ll come back.”

Search continues

Back in Ouardia, Rhimi told Al Jazeera he spends all his free time searching for information about his sons.

He hasn’t heard from Wissam since he left for Italy in 2011 and has only sporadic contact with Soufiane.

He said he approached Tunisian authorities several times to try to locate Wissam and even left a DNA sample with a hospital in Sfax in case his son’s body is pulled from the sea.

But so far, he has no new information. “Nobody is helping me,” Rhimi said.

“But I lost two sons, so I don’t care. I’m not afraid of death… I’m carrying on.”

Source: Al Jazeera

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