In a video posted on TikTok, Tunisian influencer Chaïma Ben Mahmoud filmed her journey to the Italian island of Lampedusa, making the Mediterranean crossing seem glamourous when in fact it remains the deadliest migration route in the world. Three months earlier, another young Tunisian woman also caused a scandal by posting a photo taken on a small boat in the Mediterranean.
In the fragile dawn light, a small boat is pictured sailing on a calm sea. On board, a score of smiling young people, wrapped in heavy coats, look into the phone held high by Chaïma Ben Mahmoud. This 21-year-old Tunisian influencer, followed by nearly 140,000 subscribers on the social network TikTok, is one of the passengers. In the foreground, the young woman, with bright red lipstick, gently smoothes a long lock of her brown hair. Set to Arabic music praising border crossings, the video, filmed in December, has now been viewed by 1.6 million people.
In November, another Tunisian influencer caused controversy when she posted her own selfie on Instagram. 18-year-old Sabee al Saidi is posing in a small wooden boat during her own Mediterranean crossing.
These idealized images of the often perilous Mediterranean journey convey a glamorous image of the crossings even though this sea route, used by tens of thousands of people every year, is the deadliest migration route in the world.
According to the International Organization for Migration's Missing Migrants Project, 2,048 people went missing in the Mediterranean in 2021, with 23,000 missing since 2014.
Visiting the Eiffel Tower, driving BMWs
Once they arrive in Europe, these influencers continue to document their lives on social networks in an idealized way. On Ben Mahmoud's Instagram account, we see the young woman posing at the foot of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Her boyfriend also films himself singing in an empty apartment and walking in the streets of the capital.
In November, al Saidi also posted videos, since deleted, of her posing in a BMW car. This creates the image of a daily life in total contradiction with the one experienced by thousands of other migrants in Europe, often hit hard by a great precariousness upon arrival.
For Wael Garnaoui, a psychologist specializing in migration, "the migration lie", which consists of conveying false ideas about the reality of exile, has been "intensified by social media".
"So they go to the Eiffel Tower and take a selfie in a Lacoste T-shirt, take photos of expensive cars. .… They tell their family back home that everything is going well,” Garnaoui said. “If they say the opposite, everyone will mock them. They will point to other people and say: ‘If they did it, why can’t you?’ There is so much social pressure," he told the Associated Press (AP).
These messages do serve to "demystify a terrifying trip for most people," said Matt Herbert, research director at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, speaking with AP.
“One of the bars to migration is the fear of stepping out on the journey. ... It’s scary. What these videos do, especially the videos of men and women at sea describing their journey, it confronts their fear with a visual reality that people can replace it with,” he said. “It lowers the mental bar to leaving.”
Beyond the blatant distortion of facts, the influencers have themselves acknowledged that the image they portray of the voyage is not entirely honest. In a Zoom interview with AP, Ben Mahmoud confessed that she was terrified during the crossing.
“I was so scared, I saw death right in front of me,” she said. “The fear was extraordinary, the sea was really agitated and there were lots of high waves. In the boat, we said a prayer and prepared ourselves for death. When they told us we had arrived in Italian waters, we couldn’t believe it.”
'The hope is there is work'
The key reason that drove Ben Mahmoud to take to the sea were the same as those of the thousands of other Tunisians who board these small makeshift boats, heading for Italy: money.
“I didn’t find anything for myself in Tunisia,” she said to AP. “I have a diploma in hairdressing and I couldn’t get any work in this field. … When I did, the monthly salary was really hopeless — around 350 dinar (€105). You cannot do anything with that. You can just use public transport and buy your lunch — that’s it.”
Ben Mahmoude, who like al Saidi grew up in a lower middle-class family in the coastal Tunisian city of Sfax, said all it took was a call to a friend of a friend. She paid 4,500 dinar (€1,375) for a place in the boat alongside 23 others.
Her financial difficulties and the impossibility of obtaining a visa for France led her to choose to do the "harka" (the local expression for this crossing).“I have lots of friends who did the harka and they found opportunities in Europe. They put hope in my heart that there is work, that there is a lot of money," she said. "I want to change my life like they did."
'I wouldn't encourage anyone to do what I did'
In November, after her crossing, al Saidi posted another video where she asserted that she also had to leave Tunisia because of "difficult social conditions". "I wouldn't encourage anyone to do what I did," she said.
Exacerbated by the coronavirus, unemployment in Tunisia has soared 18% and, according to the latest estimates and affects 42.4% of people under 25. The health crisis coupled with a political crisis – in July 2021, President Kais Saïed suspended the Parliament and assumed extensive powers – has added to the economic gloom in which has enveloped the country in recent years.
This is the backdrop that drives thousands of Tunisians each year to try their luck in Europe. In 2021, authorities intercepted more than 23,000 people trying to leave the Tunisian coast, compared to 5,000 in 2019. These are Tunisians like Ali, this 27-year-old Tunisian, who spoke with InfoMigrants last November. The young man has tried seven times to reach the island of Lampedusa, without success. "I will not stop until I reach my goal," he said. His brother never returned.