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Tunisia: Migrants, fearing deportation following statements by President resorted to buy boats to escape to Italy

March 20, 2023 at 9:14 pm

Citizens of the Ivory Coast gather required paperwork from Ivory Coast Embassy in Tunis and head to Tunis Airport to go back to their country after Tunisian President Kais Saied called for ending flow of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa in Tunis, Tunisia on March 07, 2023 [Yassine Gaidi/Anadolu Agency]

The British newspaper, The Times, in a report published on Monday, 20 March, 2023, said that the wave of migrants flowing to Italy these days is due to the Ivorians ‘ rush to buy fishing boats to leave Tunisia, where they faced arrests and violence at the instigation of the country’s President.

Tunisian human rights organisations have denounced a speech made by Tunisian President, Qais Saied, recently, in which he called for stopping the flow of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, considering it “racist” and calling for “hatred”, according to a report published by Agence France-Presse in February 2023.

In his controversial speech, Saied stressed that “urgent measures” must be taken to stop the flow of “hordes of irregular migrants”, and the resulting situation of “violence, crimes and unacceptable practices, as well as legally criminalised”. This statement provoked condemnation from Tunisian human rights organisations.

One of the Tunisian people smugglers said that migrants from Ivory Coast are among the sub-Saharan residents who leave from the port of Sfax “in huge numbers, because this is their last chance. Or as we say in Arabic: the sea is in front of you and the enemy is behind you”.

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While Ivorian migrants made up the bulk of a group of 3,300 people who sailed to Italy between 6 and 12 March, most arrived on the small island of Lampedusa; many were transported to processing centres on the Italian mainland by military aircraft. The Tunisian coast guard repatriated another 1,500 sub-Saharan migrants on 42 boats in a 36-hour period between 8 and 9 March.

Migration is making headlines again in Italy, after the deaths of at least 80 migrants who set sail from Turkiye, while another 30 were presumed dead after a ship sank off Libya.

In a related context, Italian Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, has already asked for the EU’s help in stopping the arrival of refugees, warning of an “invasion” if the EU stands still and is only watching. But about 12,000 of the 20,000 arrivals to Italy this year have come from Tunisia, up from 1,000 arrivals from the country in the same period last year, according to UN statistics.

The migrants were shot, expelled and robbed by mobs after Tunisian President Qais Saied blamed them for a crime wave and warned that the conspirators, whose names he did not disclose, were fuelling the waves of migration in order to “change the demographics” of Tunisia. “The rise in sailing trips is linked to this discourse and Ivorians are the largest group of departures,“ said a migrant activist in Sfax.

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A second trader said that Tunisian smugglers refuse to travel with sub-Saharan Africans because he will recognise them upon arrival because of their fair skin, forcing migrants to buy boats and fuel from fishermen, pay up to 3,000 dinars (959 US dollars) for each person, and then sail on their own. “They have no jobs, no food, nothing. This convinced them to go as soon as possible. They are good – they don’t steal boats, they buy them”.

Dube Aboubakar, an Ivorian DJ in Tunisia who runs a Facebook page for migrants, said some Ivorians had travelled to Tunisia hoping to work there, although the majority were eventually planning to sail to Europe and settle in France or Germany. “More now want to leave first, because of the weak economy in Tunisia, and then because of the President’s speech, “he explained.

About 3,200 Ivorians have arrived in Italy this year – the largest group of the same nationality among the arrivals.

While the 2010-2011 civil war provoked a wave of emigration from Ivorians, a country with a population of 27 million, in which 3,000 people were killed. There are currently about 91,000 Ivorian refugees outside the country.