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Groups help mothers, families of missing Tunisian migrants

Organizations in Europe and Tunisia are taking a page from a Central American movement, teaming up to help people whose family members have disappeared or died while seeking a better life in new countries.

For many young, disenfranchised Tunisians, Europe is tantalizingly close. The small North African country is the northernmost point on the African continent, and on an exceptionally clear day, it is possible to spot the outline of Italy across the blue horizon. The lyrics of one popular North African song, "Ah Ya Babour" ("The Boat"), by Groupe Liberta, epitomize that longing: “I sit by the sea. Lost in my thoughts. I look at the boats. The image of Paris comes to me.”

Both proximity and history are written in Tunisia’s long story of migration to Europe. After achieving independence from France in 1956, Tunisia signed bilateral labor agreements with France (1963) and Germany (1965) that facilitated emigration for work. Given France’s colonial legacy in the country, linguistic and cultural ties (though they had been required in school) made France a particularly popular destination. Movement to Europe remained relatively open until the 1990s, when European countries fortified their border controls and visa regulations — at which point, a parallel system of illegal entry, the overstaying of visas and permanent settlement began to take shape.

After the 2011 revolution, more than 28,000 men and women left Tunisia for Italy, taking advantage of Tunisia’s transitional political period and its weak law enforcement. In the following years, Tunisian migration was relatively low and remained out of the media — as opposed to the migration from and human smuggling situation in neighboring Libya. Still, thousands made the attempted crossing, and hundreds either died or disappeared. In 2014, the European Union and Tunisia established a mobility partnership to “facilitate the movement of people between the EU and Tunisia and to promote a common and responsible management of existing migratory flows, including by simplifying procedures for granting visas.”

But as the sociopolitical and economic situation in Tunisia has made it increasingly difficult for people to find gainful employment, there has been a spike in the number of Tunisians attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe, by any means possible. Youth unemployment is as high as 36%, reports the World Bank, and in the interior of the country, the economic reality is even more desperate. In October and November 2017, more Tunisians left for Europe than in 2015 and 2016 combined. Some 45% of irregular migrants detained by Italian authorities were Tunisian and 8,700 Tunisians in total were caught by Italian and Tunisian authorities in 2017. The total number of migrants — those who successfully crossed and evaded detection — is thought to be much higher.

Those who leave are referred to as "harraga," a colloquial word used in Morocco, Tunisia and Libya. It comes from the Arabic word "harrag," meaning to burn — in this case, it refers to the literal burning of passports and ID documents. More metaphorically, it alludes to the “burning of borders.” 

Last fall, the Italian and Tunisian coastal navies launched a joint patrol to monitor the transportation of migrants and to conduct search and rescue operations as needed. On Oct. 18, the Tunisian coast guard intercepted a sinking rubber boat packed with almost 100 migrants, including three children. They were lucky: Just 10 days earlier, 45 migrants were killed when a Tunisian navy boat collided with their makeshift vessel, which had left from the islets of Kerkennah and was headed to Italy.

There’s a stigma associated with migration in Tunisia. For the families left behind — particularly for mothers — it can be an exceptionally lonely and confusing time, with almost no government support. Now a new project is aiming to bring attention to the plight of Tunisian migrants and their families. For the first time, the Italian refugee migrant organization, Carovane Migrante, has partnered with the Tunisian nongovernmental organization La Terre Pour Tous (The World For All), which supports more than 500 families of missing migrants, to bring a caravan to Tunisia. 

Carovane Migrante, which was established in 2015, was inspired by the Movimiento Migrante Mesoamericano. In Mexico, a dangerous country for migrants, Marta Sanchez has been leading caravans through the country with mothers of missing migrants from across Central America. In the past 13 years, her organization has brought families together to share their experiences, and has found more than 200 sons and daughters. 

“We wanted to share borders — from the Mexico border and South America — and talk across these two frontiers, and to create a platform for families to share their concerns, their struggles and their … resistance and memory, to keep alive the memory of their loved ones,” Valentina Zagaria told Al-Monitor. Zagaria, a doctoral student at the London School of Economics, studies migration and border deaths in the Mediterranean, and is an organizer of the caravan.

The bleak parallel between the US-Mexico border and the Mediterranean Sea has become increasingly obvious. A group of about 20 people, including Sanchez, spent a week traveling through Tunisia, meeting families and sharing stories and struggles. The caravan kicked off recently in the beachside town of Raf Raf, where they met with families of seven men who disappeared en route to Sicily last year. Mothers sat holding faded portraits of their lost sons. 

The following day, the caravan set off for the Tunisian town of Bir El Hafey, to meet the families of victims of the Oct. 8 shipwreck. “Most of the bodies have been found and buried,” said Zagaria, “but the families are aware that because it was a military boat, they probably won’t see justice. … Most families say they don’t want money, they just want the truth about their loved ones and what happened to them.”

The caravan then traveled to Sfax, Zarzis and Tunis. This past week, the group traveled to Italy. 

“Our objective was to listen, to be there for people to show that we want to keep alive the memory and the fight for the truth of these families. We are here in solidarity with them,” Zagaria added.

For many of these families, abandoned by their government and living in limbo, knowing that their struggle for truth and justice are universal has provided, even if just for a moment, a balm. 

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