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With their parents' blessing, Tunisian teens ride death boats to Europe

With their parents' blessing, Tunisian teens ride death boats to Europe

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English Arab Migrants

Tuesday 11 October 202203:14 pm
إقرأ باللغة العربية:

بتشجيع وتمويل من ذويهم... أطفال تونس يخوضون البحر بـ"قوارب الموت" إلى إيطاليا

At the end of August, the Tunisian public was shaken by the news of the horrific death of a teacher and her young child. The thirty-something woman had drowned along with her 4-year-old son, while they were on an illegal migrant boat that started from al-Baghdadi Beach in the Mahdia Governorate, and took off towards the Italian island of Lampedusa.

This incident has reignited the controversy over the significant rise of the phenomenon of irregular migration, with record numbers of this perilous adventure being recorded in recent years, while observers attribute this rise to the severe economic crisis in Tunisia.

Irregular migration in Tunisia has long been limited to young people and youth groups, but today it has become the focus of new groups of society that had not been previously compelled to migrate, such as women, girls, unaccompanied children, employees, and even the elderly, with entire families at a time braving the seas to migrate in many cases.

In search of a better life

Six months ago, 16-year-old Mohammad miraculously survived the sinking of an illegal migrant boat off the coast of Loza in Sfax Governorate, but he assures Raseef22 that he will do the same again. He says, "I am getting ready to go through it again with a number of my friends. I do not care about the dangers and risks to my life."

Mohammad (pseudonym) hails from the Sidi Bouzid Governorate, and says that he has already started collecting money from his construction job so that he can be a part of another illegal migrant operation that is being organized by smugglers from Tunisia and Libya.

The young Mohammad is aware that his journey across the Mediterranean will be fraught with dangers, and that his dream of a rosy life in Europe may be buried at sea, but he says, "I'd rather die at sea while I'm fighting for a decent life instead of starving to death in my country. I have lost my education and I have nothing left to lose anymore."

Mohammad dropped out of school at the age of fourteen and began working with his father and uncle in construction sites, before the dream of immigration dominated his thoughts, having been influenced by his relatives and neighbors who had migrated to Europe and some had succeeded in improving their social situation.

Speaking to Raseef22, he states, "My father is aware of my intention to immigrate and agrees with me and the notion that it has become a lifeline that must be held on to in order to escape poverty and destitution."

"I'd rather die at sea while I'm fighting for a decent life instead of starving to death in my country. I have lost my education and I have nothing left to lose anymore"

Mohammad is only one of hundreds of children who have chosen to ride the boats of death and migrate illegally towards the coast of Italy, at a time when Tunisia is in the wake of an economic crisis that has resulted in a decline in the purchasing power of citizens, high food prices, and the loss of other essential foodstuffs from the markets.

Civil society organizations in Tunisia acknowledge that the phenomenon of irregular migration is no longer confined to unemployed youth groups or those in vulnerable employment. They assert that migrant boats to Europe have also become a refuge for women, children, the educated, and the well-off from the middle class.

Human trafficking

Imad Soltani, president of the "Terre pour tous" ('Earth for All') association, points out that irregular migration in Tunisia has taken on dangerous forms in recent years, including the exploitation and trafficking of children and women, and using them as "shields" to obtain humanitarian asylum in European countries.

Speaking to Raseef22, Soltani adds that he has noticed, in the last two years in particular, an increase in children under the age of eighteen being involved in irregular migration operations, sometimes without the knowledge of their families, and sometimes with their full knowledge and funding.

The activist stresses, "It is unacceptable today for the family to allow their minor son to board these death boats on a perilous smuggling journey fraught with dangers and abuses." He further notes "the sinking of dozens of boats in the Mediterranean on an almost daily basis, and how dozens of bodies of children and women, most of them pregnant, have been recovered".

"Last year, my son Iyad, 15, was preparing to go to school, but today he is missing and we don't even know if he is alive or dead. I only wish for his safe return to his family and homeland"

He continues, "Unfortunately today dozens of children are missing and others have drowned at sea, while dozens of them have arrived in European countries such as Italy and are living in harsh conditions and their lives are at risk, especially since most of them are without their parents".

In the same context, Sultani believes that "the tendency of groups such as children and women to migrate illegally to Italy came especially after Italy enacted a comprehensive legislation to protect the rights of minors who are unaccompanied by their parents, in addition to its commitment to respect international laws that obligate it to protect women.

In March 2017, the Italian Parliament adopted the "Zampa Law", which aims to strengthen support and protection for unaccompanied or separated foreign children, making Italy the first European country to legislate a comprehensive framework for the protection of irregular migrant children, but in return it follows a policy of forced displacement with other groups within the framework of an agreement signed with the Tunisian state.

"Poverty is what pushed my child to flee Tunisia while he is still a minor. Everyone is now thinking of immigrating in search of a decent life and to escape poverty and hunger"

Here, Imad Soltani acknowledges that Tunisians' knowledge of international and Italian laws has led a large number of adults to migrate with their children and wives to in order to avoid forced deportation, noting also that a number of young people have resorted to luring some children who are not related to them in order to take them with them on board these death boats in exchange for paying for the price of the trip.

Soltani describes what is happening as a way to "circumvent the law by kidnapping children in many cases, trafficking them, and endangering their lives." He also accuses the Tunisian authorities of "failing to protect children and women and finding radical solutions to this phenomenon," as he put it.

I dream of my son's return

Since July, Salem, who hails from the Siliana Governorate, has been living through difficult times. Stuck between Tunisia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and organizations focused on migrant affairs, he has been trying to find out what had happened to his missing son, who had boarded an illegal migrant boat that began on the coast of Monastir Governorate.

Speaking to Raseef22, Salem says, "Last year, my son Iyad, 15, was preparing to go to school, but today he is missing and we don't even know if he is alive or dead. I only wish for his safe return to his family and homeland".

Iyad had gone on an illegal migrant voyage with a number of his neighborhood friends, most of whom are not over 20 years old. They had been able to safely reach the Italian coast on July 18, but his father says, "He contacted me by phone as soon as he arrived and told me that he was fine and from that moment on his phone had been out of service."

Iyad's father goes on to say in a sad voice, "It was poverty that drove my child to flee Tunisia while he was still a minor. Everyone is thinking about immigrating in search of a decent life and to escape poverty and hunger."

Children in danger

The spokesman for the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, Ramadan Ben Omar, confirms that 2,424 children have migrated to Italy through irregular means during the first eight months of 2022, of whom 1,687 were unaccompanied children, while 737 had arrived with their families.

Speaking to Raseef22, Ben Omar adds, "The forum has noted a rise in the number of children migrating irregularly in recent years. In 2021, about 2,731 children immigrated, including 2,076 unaccompanied children, 655 who were with their families, while 1,826 children immigrated in 2020.

Ramadan Ben Omar pointed out that most of the children who boarded these death boats left school at an early age, noting that about 100,000 Tunisian children drop out of school annually because of the state's inability to do its part towards them.

He sees that the Tunisians' perception of success has changed, as it is no longer tied to education. They have found other ways to make quick profit, such as immigration, which may save them from the economic and social crisis their country is going through.

The spokesman for the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights also spoke about how some families work to provide enough money for their children to help them migrate illegally to save them from the looming threat of unemployment and delinquency.

He continues, "There are families who believe that helping their son immigrate might enable him to build a good future instead of staying in Tunisia without work. Families have abandoned their role in resisting immigration and have gotten involved in financing and searching for smuggling groups that would provide safe trips for their children."

He goes on to add, "With prices rising in Tunisia and a decline in purchasing power, everyone has come to believe that migration is a means of change while families have been convinced that the danger of the sea is better than the other dangers that threaten their children in Tunisia".

He also stressed that the forum also noted the recent rise in women, especially pregnant women and girls, wishing to illegally migrate, unconcerned with the dangers that may threaten their lives, such as rape, kidnapping, and murder. He sees that "the illegal migrants now prepare well by reading international laws and conventions as if they do not want to lose their chance of a lifetime," as they see it.

According to Ben Omar, "The cost of the trip varies according to the type and quality of the vehicle used, the place of departure, and the intermediaries involved, starting from 3,000 dinars ($900 US dollars), and it may reach up to 10,000 dinars ($3,000)."

It is worthy of note that the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights has also confirmed that more than 7,500 irregular migrants have arrived on the Italian coast from Tunisia since the beginning of 2022. The Tunisian authorities have also been able to thwart more than 920 crossings and prevent around 11,500 irregular migrants from leaving towards the Italian coast, 60 percent of whom have Tunisian nationality while 40 percent are of other nationalities.

Statistics on the influx of irregular migrants to Italian coasts by the Italian Interior Ministry confirm that Tunisians ranked first from the beginning of the year until July 29, followed by those from Egypt, then Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Syria, and Côte d'Ivoire.

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