June 8, 2023

The Tunisian coast guard at sea commands “Last warning, stop” during one of the many daily interceptions of illegal immigrants heading for European shores who do not despair of making another attempt.

The boat set off with them from Sfax Governorate, in the east of the center of the country, towards the Italian coast, but the migrants, girded with black rubber tires, obeyed the orders of the Coast Guard during surveillance operations. , during which they were accompanied by the AFP team aboard the Eagle 35 ship.

Italy, located less than 200 kilometers from the coast of Tunisia, announced in May 2021 an agreement with the Tunisian authorities to provide it with economic assistance in exchange for increasing the interception of migrants and preventing them from reaching European shores.

Fatim, 18, from Ivory Coast, boards a Coast Guard boat with 25 other arrested migrants: “I don’t want to stay in Tunisia,” she says. “Life is hard here.”

The immigrant claims that during her stay in Tunisia, she worked as a domestic worker in order to be able to collect 4,000 dinars (1,250 euros) that she paid a smuggler in exchange for participating in an attempt to cross the border by sea.

Idia Sow, a 26-year-old Guinean who suffered a stroke, was among another group whose inflatable boat was intercepted. Idia says she spent the equivalent of 1,500 euros to get to the Italian coast with her three-month-old baby.

On Monday night alone, at least 130 migrants, all from sub-Saharan Africa, including minors and children, participated in four failed border crossings off the coast of Sfax, the main point of departure for migrants from Tunisia.

vicious circle

As soon as the migrants arrive at the port of Sfax, they are again released in accordance with the decisions of the general representative of the governorate.

Major Ibrahim Fahmy, commander of the patrol, says: “We are in a vicious circle. We are making great efforts to arrest these immigrants only to release them, and as a result, we will find them during other assassination attempts.

Most of the migrants detained by the coast guard, interviewed by AFP, say they will indeed try to cross the border again. “If I find a boat now, I will leave immediately, I will never give up,” says Ali, a 20-year-old Guinean.

A few hours before the boat was intercepted, the police dispersed more than a hundred migrants who had gathered in the coastal zone of Hamizia, about thirty kilometers from Sfax, where they had been waiting for two weeks for boats that were supposed to take them towards the Italian coast, according to evidence. collected AFP.

According to an AFP correspondent, the police, some of whom were armed, forced the migrants to leave the country.

Director of the Naval Guards in the Central Region (Sfax, Kerkenna and Mahdia), Brigadier General Saber Younesi, told AFP that “this summer we recorded a record number of migrants – more than 17,000” during interceptions, which represents “almost double the previous for years.”

boat industry

The same dean adds: “Sfax has become a hub (for illegal immigration), although it is not the closest to Italian beaches, and swimming operations are difficult compared to other coastal areas.”

The Sfax region has seen the development of illegal boat manufacturing, which has contributed to an increase in the number of “harrags” and intermediary smugglers in the region.

Tunisia has been experiencing a suffocating economic and political crisis for many years, and the number of illegal immigrants began to increase, not only with the participation of the unemployed, but also of entire families, and even personnel.

The latest official figures show that more than 22,500 migrants have been intercepted off the coast of Tunisia since the beginning of this year, including some 11,000 sub-Saharan Africans.

During the same period, 536 smugglers were arrested, including 21 foreigners.

In an interview with AFP in the port of Sfax, where a large number of confiscated boats have been collected, Younessy notes that “if this pattern continues, we may reach a point where we can no longer control this phenomenon.”

The same security official warns that Tunisia’s means to combat illegal immigration “have begun to deteriorate and we are facing service difficulties (…) We need more international cooperation.”

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