The Tunisian authorities announced on Monday that their naval patrols had intercepted a total of 19 boats carrying 246 migrants hoping to make a new life in Italy. The vast majority of migrants were from Tunisia, 29 of them however came from various other countries.
On Monday, September 21, the Tunisian authorities announced they had intercepted 19 different boats carrying a total of 246 migrants in one single night. The majority of those aboard were of Tunisian nationality.
In fact, in August, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, 40% of all migrants who arrived in Italy were of Tunisian nationality. In July, the number was even higher, topping 61% of all arrivals. This year alone Italy has seen 22,238 migrants arrive on its shores as of September 20.
In the month of September (again up to September 20) the last available figures record 2,896 migrant arrivals, mostly on the Italian island of Lampedusa, not far from the north African coast lines.
'I am frustrated...I want to leave'
According to the news agency Agence France Presse (AFP), only 29 of those intercepted by Tunisian naval patrols were from other countries.
Tunisia has a population of around 11 million people and the numbers of those, mostly young men, attempting the crossing to Italy has been steadily rising since 2017, since Tunisia began experiencing economic and political instability. High unemployment and diminishing fishing stocks is another driver of current migration. Among young people, according to The New Humanitarian, youth unemployment can top 36%.
According to AFP, "over 8,580 people have been stopped trying to cross the Mediterranean" from Tunisia so far this year. Three quarters of those stopped were of Tunisian nationality according to interior ministry figures.
"When I am here, I am frustrated, I am angry, I want to leave," a 17-year-old fisherman’s son, Ahmed told the New Humanitarian recently. The weekly magazine has been looking into the phenomenon of Tunisians hoping to cross to Italy in a series of articles.
Targeted by smugglers
Ahmed, like many young men with knowledge of the sea, are often targeted by smugglers and asked to pilot boats. Whereas in the past, smugglers used to pilot the boat and drop migrants and come back, now these young men take a one-way ticket, piloting the boat and then try to start a new life in Italy, reports the New Humanitarian.
In August however, Italy announced its plans to repatriate Tunisian migrants who do make it to the country. The governments of Rome and Tunis have been working closely together to try and reduce the numbers of Tunisians who are able to stay in Italy. The Italian government has also put in place various employment and development schemes in Tunisia to try and help the ailing economy.
Declining fish stocks, rise in smuggling
According to the New Humanitarian, "years of declining yields have strained the financial viability of the fishing industry on [the archipelago of] Kerkennah, and all along the Tunisian coast." Over-fishing and illegal trawling, as well as invasive species of blue crabs have made the fish hauls less abundant each year.
In a UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) report from 2018, it was found that fish stocks in the sea had been depleted by 78%. In the New Humanitarian report, one 21-year-old fisherman explained that in 2016 he earned 29,000 dinars (nearly €9,000) in just two weeks after he dropped off two boatloads of migrants. Compared to the average wage of about €250 a month, this represents a lot of money.
Making money from migration
The New Humanitarian reports that in Tunisia, the migrant business is experiencing a boom. Sometimes whole families are involved. "The little boys monitor the roads that take people to the sea […] there is the other boy who disables the streetlights, and the women who make food for the clandestines [as they wait to leave.]" one 45-year-old Kaouther Megdish tells the New Humanitarian.
Meanwhile, about 140 kilometers across the Mediterranean, the Sicilian island of Lampedusa recorded another "record number" of migrant arrivals over the weekend. The newspaper Tiroler Tageszeitung reported that on Sunday, 26 migrant boats arrived. Just that evening, it wrote 11 boats landed with 300 migrants on board.
According to the Tiroler Tageszeitung, there are now "more than 1,000 migrants" in Lampedusa's migrant camps. The majority of them Tunisian.