Since the summer of 2018, more and more migrants have left Tunisia to make the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean. On the other side of the sea, Europe is becoming increasingly frustrated. Still, it seems Tunisia does little to prevent these journeys in the first place. Faced with a major economic and social crisis of its own, the government has let the migration problem slide -- it has yet to put a national asylum policy in place and has next to no infrastructure for migrants. InfoMigrants went to Tunisia where we met Jeanne d’Arc. For several months, the Ivorian migrant was a slave for a wealthy Tunisian family. Today, she feels completely abandoned and faces an uncertain future.
Her face shows an unwavering determination, and her voice is clear and strong. “No, I don’t want to tell my story anonymously. Film me, show me. I want to talk about this without hiding my face. You can’t hide yourself if you’re going to denounce.” Jeanne d’Arc possesses a rare form of courage. The Ivorian migrant, who runs an Afro hair salon in central Tunis, refuses anonymity as much as she refuses to be silent. “I have to talk about what I went through a few years ago in order to help other girls avoid falling into the same trap.”
It’s been five years since that fateful day in December 2013 that would change Jeanne d’Arc’s life forever, and the memories of it are still visibly painful. For five months, Jeanne d’Arc was a domestic slave for a well-off family in Tunis. “The story is so common…,” she starts. “You have a trafficker who promises your family that he will take you to Europe and then ends up breaking his promise and sells you to someone,” she says, sitting on the sofa in her salon which is dimly lit by neon lights. “When we got to Tunis, I quickly understood that something was wrong. There were several young girls like me. They took us to an apartment where we were then handed off to families … I couldn’t do anything. Once you leave your country it’s already too late, you’ve already been sold off.”
Like so many other Ivorians, Jeanne d’Arc was the victim of a “seasoned and smooth” criminal network whose aim is to attract migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa and then “rent them out” to wealthy Tunisian families. For five months, Jeanne d’Arc only slept “when my boss slept”, and almost every day she had to clean “six bedrooms, four living rooms and two kitchens” in the triplex her “boss” owned, located in the posh el Ghazala suburb of the Tunisian capital. “My boss confiscated my passport. And obviously I wasn’t paid. Never. I was allowed to go out now and again, and I could sleep. I was a lot luckier than some.”
Jeanne d’Arc told her story to the independent NGO “Forum Tunisien des droits économiques et sociaux” (FTDES), which works to defend economic and social rights of migrants and others. The association has long tried to alert authorities to these human trafficking networks – especially the Ivorian ones. The Mafia-style organizations are also well known to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). “Like many countries in the world, Tunisia is not spared this phenomenon (of human trade) of which the causes are both profound and multiple,” IOM wrote in a statement. Since 2012, IOM in Tunisia has identified 440 human trafficking victims, and 86 percent of them come from Ivory Coast.
In a bid to combat this problem, Tunisia in August 2016 adopted a new law aimed at preventing and stopping human trade – a law which allows for the prosecution and conviction of those behind these human trafficking networks. In theory, this law should now work to protect victims who speak out, victims like Jeanne d’Arc. But “authorities don’t do anything,” she says. “Neither does the IOM … A law is one thing, reality another.”
A sinkhole of ‘penalties’ targeting undocumented migrants in Tunisia
When Jeanne d’Arc was “liberated” in January, 2014, after her boss handed her back her passport and told her to leave the house, she thought her ordeal was finally over. She thought that the Tunisian state would protect her.
“It was the contrary … Just after being liberated, a friend told me about Tunisia’s “financial penalties” … He told me that I would most likely have to pay a fine. I didn’t know about this system. I didn’t think it would concern me. I found myself trapped, I was devastated.”
Under Tunisian law, illegal migrants are subject to “penalties for exceeding stays”. The longer a migrant stays in Tunisia, the bigger their fine gets. Since 2017, this penalty has been set to a maximum of 1,040 dinars per year (around €320), the FTDES explains. “They suffer triple injustice. On top of being illegal migrants and victims of human trafficking, the migrant has to pay a fine,” says Valentin Bonnefoy, coordinator for the FTDES’s “Initiative for justice for migrants” department.
Despite the ordeal that she’d just been through, Jeanne d’Arc was confronted with yet another problem. “My friend told me: ‘You can live here, but you won’t be able to leave’.” He was right. The so-called “cheaters” are not authorized to leave Tunisian soil without paying their “debt”. “If I try to leave the country they will demand money for all the penalties that began accumulating when I was a slave!,” says Jeanne d’Arc. “I’ve been in Tunisia for five years now, and so the calculation is easy: I don’t have enough money. I’m stuck.”
These penalties scare off foreigners in general, because the fines tend to accumulate quickly, on either a weekly or a monthly basis. “Even foreign students who come to Tunisia for their education are afraid. Those who want to stay after their studies and ask for a residence permit sometimes have to pay these penalties while waiting for their application to be processed. It’s about 20 dinars (€6) per week. For people without a lot of resources, it’s difficult,” Bonnefoy says.
In an attempt to escape from this financial and bureaucratic bind, in 2015 Jeanne d’Arc filed an asylum request with the UN high commission, the institution dealing with asylum processes in Tunisia. She thought her background as a victim of slavery would help her. “But my demand was rejected. It was explained to me that Ivory Coast is not a country at war. Yet I can’t go back there, I have problems because of my ethnic origins,” she says without providing more details. Today, Jeanne d’Arc has exhausted her options. “I’ve thought about denouncing the family that exploited me, but to what good? I’m tired.”
‘The only African hair salon in the neighborhood’
After a lot of struggle and numerous odd jobs, Jeanne d’Arc finally decided to take the bull by the horns. “I told myself: Why don’t you do what you dreamed of doing in Europe right here?” With the financial support of a Cameroonian friend, the 30-something migrant opened up an Afro hair salon in a working-class Tunis neighborhood. “I pay rent; the landlord doesn’t really care about my situation as long as I pay him the money I owe him.”
Although Jeanne d’Arc’s revenues are modest, she’s proud of her little business. “I set up business here, in a neighborhood without migrants, because I didn’t want competition. I have the only Afro hair salon in the area, and more than 90 percent of my customers are Tunisian,” she says proudly while finishing off the red and black braids of a young female customer. But she lacks material and the shelves are almost bare. “I need products, I need hair strands, extensions … But to get that type of supply, I would have to leave Tunisia … I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
If Jeanne d’Arc tried to leave Tunisia legally, she would face large fines. The only remaining solution is to escape via the sea. “It might be cheaper to pay a trafficker to cross the Mediterranean than to pay these fines,” Bonnefoy admits. The irony of it all is underscored by Jeanne d’Arc’s smile. “This government pushes us to commit fraud and put ourselves in danger in fact … But me, what am I supposed to do?,” she says. “I don’t want to go to Europe [anymore], and I can’t go back to live in Ivory Coast. I’m indefinitely a prisoner in Tunisia.”