A Journey of Hope and Perseverance: From Tunisia to Europe
Interview on movements of Tunisians
Between detention, deportation and permeability of the borders.
Picture from the coast next to Monastir's arbour
It was a typical day in Marseille's Noaille neighborhood, a hub known for its migrant community and ongoing struggles against police action and gentrification. I was sipping my tea at a local café when a Tunisian gentleman approached, asking if he could join me as it was the only free seat available. Welcoming his company, I nodded in agreement. He began to express his longing for Tunisian makroudh and tea with mint, sparking a conversation between us. Curious, I asked about his arrival in Marseille. He revealed with a hint of pride that he was a "Harraga," a term used to describe those who migrate by sea, bypassing traditional routes. Sensing a shared connection, I mentioned my active involvement with several migrant networks, reassuring him that it was safe to share his story. With a smile, he agreed, reflecting on his recent journey from Tunisia, and his quest to find a piece of his homeland here in Europe.
- When did you decide to try to reach Europe by a boat? When did you decide to take the route from Sfax to Lampedusa? You decided with friends/in a group? You decided with social medias? Where did you receive main information? Did you check the weather before the start? Did you think about a satellite phone? Could you collect/find useful information on safety at sea? If not, what was missing? Did you know about the hotline of Alarm Phone? Did you know already before the traveling, which city you want to go in Europe? You had friends or relatives in Europe, where you will receive support?
This year, Tunisia faced significant financial challenges. The economic crisis was so severe that basic necessities like bread and sugar were scarce. We even went weeks without coffee, and finding items like Coca-Cola was nearly impossible. Despite having money, purchasing everyday items became a struggle. The deteriorating economic situation, coupled with escalating police violence where they seemed to operate without constraints, convinced me by spring that leaving Tunisia was necessary. I discussed this with some friends and a cousin studying car mechanics, who shared my frustration with our situation.
In Tunisia, planning our departure via social media wasn't an option due to the risk of police surveillance and their use of fake accounts. Instead, we formed a group with trusted friends and relatives, including some with fishing experience, we were meeting daily to plan and to get contacts with people to buy engines and also the right boats from trustful people. Ideas were clear to leave from Sfax as the Tunisian coast guard was overwhelmed and did not have capacities to stop departures. They showed some pictures to Europe to get money but they failed to stop departure. We relied mainly on information shared by Tunisian TikTokers who had firsthand experience with the conditions at the Lampedusa hotspot
Their insights on what to expect and how to behave were invaluable and were shared in concise formats for our benefit. I believe in people who share experience and did experience . They also organise live sessions where you can ask them any kind of questions. I learned so much from them.
Preparations for Sea Journey:
"We meticulously checked the weather before our departure, using multiple applications to monitor conditions and wave heights. My cousin, skilled in mechanics, serviced and upgraded two engines, asserting that they were strong enough to reach Spain, not just Lampedusa. We didn't consider satellite phones due to their complexity but had a GPS. Some of us could interpret Italian numerals, so our strategy involved reaching international or Italian waters and then seeking help from Italian authorities."
Safety Measures and Provisions:
For safety at sea, we equipped ourselves with life jackets and inner tubes. We also packed bananas, milk, and dates for sustenance. Essential contact numbers were written on impermeable paper to ensure their durability in wet conditions. I wasn't aware of the Alarmphone. It seems many organizations focus more on Sub-Saharan migrants, often overlooking Tunisians.
Future Plans in Europe:
I have cousins in Paris, and I plan to join them. The journey from Marseille to Paris's Gare de Lyon by train should take about eight hours. I'm lucky as i have childhood friends in Paris, so while I will miss my family, I won't be alone. Even europeans struggle with loneliness so i'm really lucky.
- What was the biggest challenge of the journey? Did you start together with other boats? Any problems with the Tunisian Police or Navy? How long was your trip in the boat? Did you know in advance how long the crossing will last? Looking back, did you have enough information? What should people know, if they try and risk the crossing? What would you advice to the next people who want to cross?
The biggest challenges during our journey were mental. There was a constant state of panic, and I often found myself grappling with the fear of dying in a shipwreck, unknown to my family. I chose not to inform them of my departure, adding to my anxiety. As we started our journey, we were extremely cautious, avoiding even smoking cigarettes to not alert the Tunisian coast guard. We were always on high alert, listening for any signs of pursuit. At one point, when we saw lights, we initially thought it was the Tunisian coast guard and hid. It turned out to be a fisherman's boat. We were initially wary, fearing they might take our engines, and were prepared to defend them. However, they simply inquired if we had enough water. Interestingly, one of our group members, driven by his religious beliefs, insisted on carrying extra water to aid any thirsty people we might encounter at sea. The fishermen confirmed we were heading in the right direction towards Lampedusa.
Our group was entirely Tunisian. We planned for 15, but ended up being 17 as someone brought their orphaned brothers. My concern was heightened for my cousin who has diabetes, requiring me to give him a biscuit hourly to manage his blood sugar. The journey, expected to take 10 to 13 hours, stretched to 17, each hour feeling like a year. Despite the hardships, I felt well-prepared, perhaps even over-prepared, but this extra information was comforting. Mental preparation is crucial to avoid panic. Trustworthy individuals who can maintain and enhance the engine are vital. Travelling with friends was beneficial as well; we shared many unforgettable moments that lightened the mood and helped us avoid conflicts.
I recommend having someone who can read coordinates and communicate in Italian is essential. We noticed that Italian authorities are less receptive to French speakers, they get angry if you speak to them in French and often respond better to even broken Italian. Engines are incredibly valuable at sea, so one must be prepared to defend them if necessary. Our readiness to protect our engines was a critical aspect of ensuring our safety and the success of our journey.
Pictures taken around the Rabbit Island in Lampedusa
- Have you been rescued or you arrived on the island by yourself? How was the arrival at the pier? You felt welcomed or you were treated badly? How long you have been in the hotspot and what are your experiences there with Red Cross and mediators? Did you get information about your rights and apply for asylum? Did you receive any document and were your fingerprints taken?
When we arrived in Italian waters, our attempts to call the Italian Coast Guard were initially met with silence, despite our ability to speak Italian and having phone credit. Our situation changed when a wealthy fisherman or tourist, I am really not sure, out for leisure, approached. We explained that our engine had stopped and we needed assistance from the Coast Guard. He kindly offered to call them, and after several hours, they arrived.
The Coast Guard's arrival was marked by rapid and aggressive maneuvers, creating an atmosphere of panic among us. Their hostility was palpable; one officer, who spoke broken Arabic, was particularly aggressive. This treatment stripped us of our dignity and left us in a state of distress. During their operations, the Coast Guard rescued two other distressed boats. The individuals on these boats, visibly fatigued, were met with the same rude treatment. Once their boat was filled to capacity, we headed towards Lampedusa. The chaos at Lampedusa was as I had anticipated from videos I had seen. The provision of water was adequate, but the food was inedible. Efforts to seek information from Arabic speakers among the Coast Guard were futile; their only response was a dismissive "you will know."
Amidst these harsh conditions, my greatest fear was the potential COVID test, which, fortunately, was not administered. Some members of the Red Cross, who I refer to as doctors, showed genuine kindness, a stark contrast to the poor communication from the mediators. We spent approximately 10 to 14 hours before being transferred to a large ferry, a process that felt akin to being in a prison, with a long queue of exhausted people all uncertain of their fate
As a Tunisian, my concern was heightened by the possibility of being deported directly to Tabarka from Palermo. Upon disembarkation, we were provided with extensive information about seeking asylum by individuals, presumably from the UN. However, I am well aware of the slim chances of Tunisians to get asylum , you know even for the LGBTQ community who, despite support from European NGOs, often fail to obtain asylum. Imagine me, unknown and without any support. Before boarding the bus, some people offered us water and snacks, a small gesture of compassion amidst the overwhelming fear and uncertainty.
The hotspots' extremely slow Wi-Fi made communication a challenge. Thankfully, I had roaming enabled, allowing me to maintain contact with my family, who continued to support me by adding credit to my phone. This journey has starkly highlighted that in moments of real risk, one faces the challenges alone.
- How long did it take for the transfer to Sicily and how did it happened? What happened in Sicily? Have you been in a camp, and if so open or closed? Were you threatened with detention? Do you know of other Tunisians who were detained or quickly deported? Could you easily leave the camp or you had to escape? You had a plan and idea, where to go? Could you find any support in Sicily? Which information were missing in this situation?
Actually, I'm really confused, but I think it was around two days, and I was in Sicily. I'm sorry, but I traveled through different cities in a very short time and can't recall the name of this particular place. After we arrived, there was a new identification process, and we were fingerprinted again. Some people were released immediately, but I only stayed for one day before receiving a "foglio di via." Most of us were released, except for one friend who is passionate about camping. The authorities became paranoid about terrorism when they found a lot of pictures of tents and camping gear, but eventually, they realized it was just camping and he was released.
I also met someone who really came to Europe to undergo a medical operation, and he expressed his hope that they would let him pass to get the operation done and then he would return to Tunisia by himself. His story really touched most of us. There was no direct threat of deportation, but there were others in different sections who were visited by representatives of the Tunisian embassy, and it was clear they would be deported. Tunisian officers are dreadful; they don't even offer you a cigarette and treat people like criminals. What is our crime if we just want to move? But for them, we are only a source of money. After the new memorandum, the Tunisian government lets people leave and agrees to deport them in inhumane conditions for money. Some people were asking for medicine but never received any. We heard them screaming from different sections, but we couldn't do anything. Maybe if you protest, they would take us there too.
In my interview, I insisted that I was Algerian. That was my plan, as Algerians don't get deported; Algeria refuses to take people back. Anyway, then a friend of my cousin who lives in Torino came to pick me up, and we drove from Palermo to Genova. I was completely exhausted, so I slept most of the time and didn't even want to eat. I think we drove for two days, with another friend doing shifts. They were crazy. We would stop at an Autogrill, eat, go to the toilet, and then continue driving. When we reached Genova, my cousin came with his wife, who is French. I asked my cousin if I could take a shower, so I used a public shower. They got me new clothes, and I even went to a barber. But even with all of this, I was still afraid of the deportation risk. It was always on my mind, and whenever I saw police in the street, I panicked, thinking they would take me.
- Did you plan to go to France from the very beginning? Did you know from friends or social media, of others who succeeded the route from Sfax to Marseille? Did you know about the Dublin system, the fingerprints and the risk to be deported back to Italy? Or did you know, that this regulation is not working anymore? What information about France or other European cities would have been most important for you? What would be most important to know in advance? What kind of support is missing?
Yes, my plan was always to go to France due to the new law of Darmanin. I have cousins in Paris, so I had a place to stay. Also, as a welder, I knew that in France my skills are in demand. The idea was to work for three years and, with proof of employment, get regulated with the new migration law in France, there are a lot of videos about it. Regarding the route from Sfax to Marseille, I was quite informed, as many people I know have managed the journey. Genova and Ventimiglia are common entry points, and we have relatives and neighbors who lived in Marseille. People there often pick you up by car, which is easier since authorities tend to focus more on public transport like Flixbus or large buses, rather than private cars. The private cars, if checked, are usually searched for drugs, not migrants. Also, I heard of many who trekked through mountains, but I knew the trains were the most dangerous. The French police are especially aggressive there, with videos showing them with dogs and heavy weapons, treating people like terrorists.
I was aware of the Dublin system, primarily through TikTok. I knew that Italy was struggling to accommodate more people and not accept deported people. I saw several testimonies also on Facebook. For me, having my cousin in France meant that I didn't need much information. But I think it's important for others to know where to find showers, what to do if they are beaten by the police, and places to get new clothes. Appearance matters a lot; well-dressed people tend to attract less attention from the police.
Preparation is key. Watching videos about the hotspot conditions, understanding the interview process, and even pretending to be from a different nationality (like I did with Algerian) can make a difference. I had prepared well, almost like it was my PhD, by watching numerous videos and mentally preparing myself for the journey and the interviews.
I don't know what support might be missing for others since my family in Europe, especially my cousins, were instrumental in helping me travel from Sicily to France. Now even in Marseille, their contacts are a great help.
For those planning this journey, it's crucial to prepare well. Ask people, watch lots of videos, and mentally brace yourself. Leaving your family and facing the uncertainty at sea, where you might perish without anyone knowing, is daunting. Then there's the anxiety of what happens upon arrival – potential deportation or the chance to reach your destination. Having contact with a lawyer who is responsive, even at odd hours like 2 AM, can be incredibly helpful.