More than 5,000 Tunisians – for the most part young people – tried to emigrate to Europe during 2017. That’s five times more than in 2016, and a number that hasn’t been seen since the tumultuous post-revolution period in 2011 when 30,000 people left the country after the fall of Ben Ali’s regime. FRANCE 24 Observers journalist Corentin Bainier went to Tunisia to speak to young people to ask them why, more than ever before, they want to flee their country.
"I would rather struggle in France than in Tunisia"
There hasn’t been such a significant wave of people leaving since 2011 – so why now? Is there a particular cause for this sudden exodus? No. It’s more a case of the final straw for Tunisians, and a sense of desperation that has reached its peak after seven years of waiting for change. For a long time, the country held onto the hope that the end of the corrupt Ben Ali regime would change things. But even if Tunisia has become a democracy and has gained new freedoms and rights, it is still blighted by the same economic and social problems that existed before the revolution. There are high levels of unemployment (30% of young people are unemployed), low salaries and corruption. At the beginning of this year, violent demonstrations broke out as citizens protested the high cost of living in the country.
Nasr, here pictured outside his house, says that he doesn’t have the money he needs to farm his land.
To understand the bleakness facing young Tunisians, the FRANCE 24 Observers spoke to Nasr, a young man who tried to cross the Mediterranean in October 2017. His attempt was thwarted when the Tunisian navy deliberately capsized his boat. He lives with his family in the small hamlet of Ltaïfa, where they grow olives, but for a pittance – Nasr earns about 100 euros a month, which is the most he can hope for. At home, he shares a room with seven other family members. No one has their own bed. Everyone sleeps where they can, on dusty cushions and up against cracked and dilapidated walls.
Nepotism and bribery
Nasr says that his family have asked for planning permission to build a well on the land in front of their house, in order to then grow crops. But he says that they’ve received no response from the authorities, and that to even get a reply they would need to have the right contacts. Our Observer Zouheir told us that this kind of nepotism and bribery is also to blame for the fact that a spanking new and well-equipped local hospital remains closed – more than two years after construction was completed.
They may not know exactly who is bribing whom or how the town’s undercurrent of corruption works, but all of the young people that we met at Bir Ali ben Khalifa agree on one thing: that the funding that was meant to go to the inauguration of the hospital was actually siphoned off elsewhere. And of course, it’s useless to hope for a reaction from the authorities; local governors and the government spokesperson refused to speak to me for the report.
The black market, the local café, or leaving altogether
The best thing to do is to leave, to try and find a future somewhere else, perhaps in Italy or France, which are the two top destination countries for illegal immigration. For example, Nasr wants to join his uncle, who owns a restaurant in Paris, or his cousin in Alsace. But during one of our conversations, I realised that he doesn’t have any real idea of the cost of living in France. He’s shocked when I tell him how much the rent of a Parisian apartment is.
Like lots of young people in the same situation, Nasr has a rose-tinted view of what France is like, which is only encouraged by what people who live in France tell him. When people he knows there come back to visit Tunisia, they boast about how easily they earn a living – even to the point of renting luxury cars just to show off. Even when I remark that there is a high rate of unemployment in France and the cost of living is high, several people respond to me in exactly the same way: “If I’m going to struggle, I would rather struggle in France than in Tunisia."
There’s a song by the popular Tunisian rapper Balti, with French-Moroccan rapper Mister You. The lyrics go: “My brothers in front of the ocean/You can see hope in their eyes/2016 and nothing has changed, it’s still the revolution/Still a lot of problems, still no solution”.
Still no news from the investigation into the Kerkennah boat collision
What is Tunisia doing to try to dissuade its young people from leaving the country in droves? Are the authorities trying to help them into entrepreneurial ventures, or are they trying to give them back hope? Barely, according to our Observers. But without being able to obtain interviews with officials, we weren’t able to find out more.
The only thing we could note on the part of the authorities in terms of a reaction to this wave of young people leaving left us stunned: on October 8, 2017, a navy ship deliberately rammed into a fishing trawler carrying migrants off the coast of Kerkennah. All of the survivors – Nasr among them – are certain of one thing: the collision was entirely deliberate. The authorities have maintained that they are investigating the incident, but there is still no update, three months after the incident.
Spending a week with these young Tunisians from out-of-the-way and forgotten towns makes me wonder: if Europe doesn’t want these young people, why doesn’t it help Tunisia to create opportunities for them so that they can stay in their own country? Because listening to them, I know that nothing will dissuade them from trying to leave. Even Nasr – who spent an hour and a half floating in the water amongst the wreckage of the boat that was supposed to take him to Lampedusa – is certain that he wants to leave again, but legally this time. At least, that’s what he says. But when he’s faced with all of the incredible difficulties of actually getting a visa, will he still feel the same way?