Migrants, the Tunisian route has a new starting point. “From Sidi Mansour a thousand Africans ready for boats bound for Lampedusa”


The journey by sea from Tunisia to Lampedusa costs roughly One thousand Euro, but there are no first class seats. The Libyan chaos and the summer season now in full swing are pushing thousands of migrants, the vast majority Sub-Saharan Africans, to move along the Tunisian coast, in particular around the large commercial port of Sfax. Last Tuesday’s tragedy off the Kerkennah islands may not be an isolated episode. Massacre whose balance sheet needs to be updated, day after day. Yesterday the sea returned other bodies, bringing the count to 60. “It’s about 30 men, 28 women and 2 children” confirmation Chamseddine Marzoug of the Tunisian Red Crescent. “We had arrived at 55 on Friday, 5 more corpses were added. Among them there is also that of the captain of the boat, a man of Tunisian nationality. We fear that there may be many more victims, “adds Marzoug. The news was confirmed, at the helm of the boat (ghost boats, without names, without registration documents, so as not to trace the owner) there was Rabban Tounsi, 48 years old, wife and dependent children, known and expert fisherman from Katatna, a few kilometers from Sfax, but above all from Sidi Mansour.

This seaside resort on the northern outskirts of the regional capital (and Tunisia’s second largest city by population) is considered ideal by the human trafficking organizations as a launching point. Over the years, the majority of migrants heading to Italy have sailed from the village’s fishing port. Now, as in other periods of recent history, it is the Sub-Saharan Africans who start, but from this stretch of sea generations of young Tunisians have tried their luck by slipping into baths with the bow heading north-east, towards our country. Especially in the pre-revolution period of jasmine, at the beginning of 2011, but also in the years following the fall of the ex-president Ben Ali, thousands of Tunisians from the internal and retrograde regions, Sidi Bouzid, Gafsa, Kasserine, fled by sea in Italy. Today Tunisia is rewarded by the WHO for its effectiveness in the battle against Covid (very small numbers thanks to a campaign of prudent measures), but it cannot limit the migratory hemorrhage from its shores.

The fact that Sidi Mansour is the launch site favored by criminal organizations is well known, yet the market is flourishing: “At this moment there are between 1,000 and 1,500 Africans here ready to board the boats bound for Lampedusa. There is a constant change, those who leave are replaced and traffic begins in the southern provinces on the border with Libya. ” Wael is a longtime Tunisian fisherman with a life experience in Italy. Everyone in Sfax knows where he was born and works. In the past, in the early 2000s, he too piloted a boat from here to the Sicilian coast: “Now I don’t want to risk my life or be arrested anymore, I have a steady job at the port, that’s enough for me and my family “Says Wael who however knows every corner of his area and everything that happens there:”Illegal trafficking has increased sharply for a month now, the numbers are getting high – Wael goes into detail about the profitable criminal activity -. The organizations are oiled and foresee a series of intermediaries willing to transport the illegal immigrants to Sidi Mansour. Those who deal with the trafficking are African mediators who come into contact with the owners of the boats, people from here who have changed or adapted their business. Wealthy people willing to buy boats, some out of use, and make them bear fruit. The boats can cost from 50 thousand to 150 thousand Tunisian dinars (from 15 thousand to 45 thousand euros, ed), depending on the size of the boats, and this is the main part of the expense. The rest is represented by the rental of trucks and vans to transfer migrants to the Sfax area, between 6 and 8 thousand dinars to be paid, from the rent of buildings where the migrants are stored until departure, more or less 10 thousand dinars to structure. Finally there is the captain’s pay to be taken into account. Take the case of the wrecked boat the other day, Tounsi would have earned between 3 and 5 thousand euros and once he arrived with the boat in Lampedusa he would have returned. At most risking arrest and deportation. The game is worth the candle. To earn such a figure working as a fisherman takes months. The captain of a boat, like Rabban, cannot be considered a criminal, he is only trying to survive. Dirty people are others. Rabban was an experienced fisherman and now he’s dead. ”

So far the fixed business costs. On average, the Tunisian trafficker spends a total of around 130,000 dinars for a medium-sized boat, just over € 40,000. The revenues, however, are very rich: “Each migrant pays 3,500Tdn (just over a thousand euros, ed) – Wael continues -. Take the case of the wrecked boat the other day, there were at least 60 people on board, perhaps more, even if at most it could have contained half of them. Over 200 thousand TDNs have entered the entrepreneur (around 65 thousand euros, editor’s note), the gain is there and is quite rich. This is how business feeds“. Around Sidi Mansour there are no boats in storage, others built ex novo in makeshift yards, largely intended not for fishing, but to be used as lifeboats where stow migrants leaving for Italy. This confirms the Tunisian market returned to flourishing and destined to increase in the next three months, favored by the best climatic and meteorological conditions. The Tunisian government does what it can, to tell the truth, to stem the traffic. In the first five months of 2020, according to sources from the Ministry of the Interior, about 2,200 migrants were intercepted at sea, a minimal portion of those who instead escaped the controls. What is happening in Tunisia on a migratory level is confirmed by Sana Bousbih, member of the African Commission on Human Rights, consultant and migration expert: “Dramas like the one off the coast of Kerkennah are destined to increase – says Bousbih, head also by an organization, Migrants Solidarity, which collaborates with the Tunisian Red Crescent -. Groups of sub-Saharans are moving en masse from Libya to Tunisia. The contagion from Covid-19 has limited departures, now an assault is underway on the passage on makeshift boats and the concerns for these ‘invisible’ are concrete. The pandemic, in addition to attracting refugees from Libya, is forcing thousands of Africans who had found work in Tunisia, including illegal workers, to try their luck due to the collapse of activities. Most were employed in the tourism, in the restaurant sector, the sectors most on the knees today in Tunisia. Families without rights who, due to the general closure, found themselves in total insecurity overnight, thrown out of the houses because they are no longer able to pay the rent. Access to basic health services for them has become impossible. Unfortunately, I expect a very difficult summer. ”

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