Azer set his eyes on Europe for the first time when he caught a glimpse of the rocky Sicilian island of Lampedusa. He had just spent 18 hours on a cramped boat, making a perilous journey across the Mediterranean – one that has claimed the lives of thousands of people in recent years. As the boat sped onwards, Azer opened TikTok on his phone and filmed himself and his friends smiling in relief.
“When I filmed that first TikTok, I felt happy after sighting Lampedusa, and wanted to showcase my emotions,” he explained. “I wanted everyone to congratulate me on starting a new life.”
Azer, 20, was one academic term away from majoring in science when he decided to quit his school in Medenine, a small Tunisian city on the doorstep of the Sahara desert. “I realised that no matter how hard I studied, I was wasting my time in my country,” said Azer, who asked to be identified by his first name only, fearing repercussions by the authorities.
Azer is one of tens of thousands of Tunisian migrants shunning smugglers to organise their own escape from the country on self-provisioned boats, before posting videos of their journey on social media.
A deepening economic downfall, worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, has forced many Tunisians – most of them young people – to risk their lives on the Mediterranean in search of a more secure existence elsewhere. Azer and his friends were lucky: their journey had been relatively smooth. Sailing with poor quality boats and without navigation experience mean some migrants can spend up to a week lost in the Mediterranean. Tragically, many more never reach their destination.
After leaving school, Azer moved to Ouargla, a city in the Algerian desert, where he worked as a pizza chef until he’d saved 3,500 Tunisian dinar – the equivalent of £1,000 – which he used to buy a flimsy wooden boat and enough fuel for him and nine other people to reach Italy, in late July.
“All I wanted was to save money to go to Europe, regardless of how I would go there,” Azer told VICE World News during a phone interview.
Upon arriving in Lampedusa, Azer was taken to one of the island’s two migrant reception centres, but due to overcrowding he was transferred firstly to a centre in Gorizia, in northern Italy, and then to another in Rome, from which he escaped. He then reached Milan by train and got smuggled in the back of a truck to Paris, where he now lives and works as a cook.
Like Azer, Mohammed was born and raised in Medenine. He now works for a parcel delivery service in Paris, having made the journey to Europe last summer. “As soon as I finished high school, my friends gathered enough money to buy a boat, a Yamaha 15 motor and eight gallons of oil, and on the 17th of August we departed from Djerba [an island off the southern coast of Tunisia],” said the 22-year-old, who only agreed to speak using a pseudonym, since he fears arrest by French authorities.
“The hate I always felt for my country did not leave space for me to develop any dream. It’s like I was never allowed to choose a path,” said Mohammed, who added that he would have preferred to risk his life in the Mediterranean than work in construction for over 12 hours a day, making only 400 Tunisian dinar – the equivalent of £130 – a month.
Mohammed was allowed to travel for free on a boat owned by 11 friends, as long as he took care of tracking their location on his phone’s GPS. “We spent 27 hours in the sea,” he said, showing VICE World News videos of the journey that he posted on Facebook and TikTok, depicting him and his friends singing and laughing.
“It’s weird to watch this now and think we could have died,” he said. “It’s like watching a group of people going on vacation to Ain Drahem [a tourist hotspot]. Too many people treat it like they are going on vacation. You will see, in a few years’ time there won’t be anyone left in Tunisia.”
Azer and Mohammed represent the majority of Tunisian migrants travelling individually and hoping to find a job so they can send money back to their families, but there has also been a surge in entire households arriving, or trying to arrive, on the shores of Sicily.
Last July, 44-year-old Raouf Ben Ammar used his Facebook profile to livestream his family and two neighbours being intercepted by the Tunisian Coast Guard while trying to reach Italy on a fishing boat. The case imploded on social media, as on the boat with Ben Ammar were not only his five small children, but also his eldest son Ahmed, 22, in a coma and on oxygen.
“As long as there is breath left in my son Ahmed, I will try my best to give him the cures he deserves,” says Ben Ammar during the livestream, adding that he’d been trying to get healthcare for his son for years from both the municipality of Sfax, a coastal central city, and from regional authorities.
Ben Ammar is now detained in a prison in Sfax, but the reasons for his arrest are still unclear. “When I livestreamed the capture by the coast guard, I acted out of desperation,” he told VICE World News during a phone call in early September, a few days before he was detained.
His wife Mabrouka Lahouij, 43, is now alone with their six children and unable to work due to their son’s need for around-the-clock supervision. “I am drowning in debt. I have eight months of rent due to pay and it breaks my heart to see my children go to school in the morning empty-stomached,” Lahouij told VICE World News during a phone call.
According to figures released by the Italian Interior Ministry, out of 35,000 migrants who arrived in Italy illegally by sea in 2020, 40 percent were Tunisian. In Lampedusa, the Sicilian island that’s only 12 hours by boat from Tunisian shores, the situation became so unmanageable that the reception centre built to house no more than 98 people ended up hosting more than 1,500 migrants.
According to a report by the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), interception operations by the Tunisian coast guard have increased by over 360 percent this year in comparison to figures dating back to 2019.
“Tunisian migrants are increasingly relying on self-provisioned boats to cross the Mediterranean,” said Romdhane Ben Amor of the FTDES. “All they need is someone in the group who has experience in mechanics, or someone who has any experience at all as a fisherman.”
Six other Tunisian migrants – not including Azer and Mohammed – who arrived on Lampedusa’s shores in 2020 told VICE World News that they all organised their own journeys to Europe.
According to Ben Amor, the problem with people smugglers persists: “There is an increasing number of fishermen entering the people smuggling business and using their own boats to transport migrants.”
Ahmed, 33, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, has been working for the Tunisian Coast Guard for over ten years. The start of his career with the coast guard coincides with the beginning of the Tunisian revolution. “There is definitely a similar spike in departures this year,” said Ahmed, who is now on assignment in Sfax, where 40 percent of illegal crossings start.
“Many of those videos are uploaded when in international waters, or filmed and uploaded days after the crossing. It’s impossible for us to take advantage of social media to monitor our waters,” said Ahmed. He spoke proudly of his job, and became animated when discussing the fact the coast guard is often accused of “destroying people’s dreams”.
“Others see youngsters happy to finally escape Tunisia and have a better life, but all I see is people travelling on a boat that could capsize at any moment,” he explained. “We must save their lives regardless of what awaits them back home.”
The sharp increase in illegal migration from Tunisia has left visible footprints even on the country’s cultural and artistic tendencies.
An analysis of end of year charts of trending Tunisian music on streaming services such as Anghami – an Arab version of Spotify – revealed that over 70 percent of songs produced in the country focus mainly on the themes of poverty and illegal migration.
“The role of music has always been very crucial and vital, and that was demonstrated more precisely in our country around revolution time,” said Emel Mathlouthi, whose interpretation of the song “Kelmti Horra” (My Word Is Free) became the anthem of the Tunisian revolution.
Mathlouthi was also invited to perform the song at the opening ceremony of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015, when the prize was awarded to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet. Alongside Mathlouthi, filmmaker Lassaad Oueslati spoke recently about the important role of social critique in the country’s visual arts.
Following the roaring success of his 2019 series “El Maestro” – which denounced the violent and unjust reeducation methods used in Tunisian juvenile prisons – Oueslati embarked on a new journey, with a series on a topic he considers “very close to every Tunisian family”.
“Harga” – an Arab word used in North Africa to indicate illegal migration – will be centred on the lives of the young Tunisians who want to escape the country illegally, and on what awaits those who make it to Italy alive.
According to estimates by the FTDES, over 70 percent of the people departing Tunisia are young men. Women over 18 only account for 7 percent, while the remaining percentage are migrants classified as unaccompanied minors on arrival.
“Most of those departing minors are school drop-outs, as in Tunisia university degrees are not a guarantee for a job anymore,” said Mohamed-Dhia Hammami, a Tunisian political analyst, during a phone interview with VICE World News.
According to Hammami, migration from Tunisia to Europe is a historical phenomenon, and one that will persist, as it’s not rooted solely in unemployment – which, according to the World Bank, now sits at 16.2 percent – but also in the low wages for the country’s high-skilled youth.
“A one-way ticket from Tunisia to France or Italy usually costs around €100, but Tunisian migrants are paying way more to cross the sea in dangerous conditions, all because their visas are rejected,” said Hammami, adding that EU embassies should reconsider their migration policies, as they are partly channeling migratory waves from Tunisia.
Mobility rights for African migrants, especially those from North Africa – who are usually considered economic migrants and not refugees – have been a pressing issue for decades, especially in Tunisia.
When Imed Soltani founded the association La Terre Pour Tous (The Earth for Everyone), his intent was to campaign for better mobility rights for Tunisians, but he soon found himself immersed in the fight for justice for the families of the so-called “Tunisian desaparecidos”.
“We represent more than 500 different families who want to know what happened to their children and who claim their children made it safely to Italy. Most of these families have been looking for answers for over ten years now,” Soltani told VICE World News.
In 2015, the Tunisia and Italy’s governments opened a joint investigation into the disappearance of these people. “The dossier has been closed after only one year, and there have been no responses to our requests for information,” said Soltani.
According to the IOM’s Missing Migrants Project, 2020 saw the lowest number of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean since 2014, but the rate of North African migrants who lost their lives at sea has increased over 290 percent compared to when the tracking project was founded six years ago.
UNHCR and IOM officials have called the Mediterranean “a vast cemetery”, echoing similar statements by EU heads of state and even the Pope himself – but “the battle for accountancy for the lives of these people has still a long way to go”, said Soltani.
Meanwhile, Tunisian migrants who arrived safely in Europe live in the shadows, using fake documents that could cost them years in jail, or working un-contracted without any access to basic rights such as healthcare or education.
“I don’t know if I will ever get documents,” Mohammed told VICE World News from Paris. “If I get them, the first thing I will do is enrol at university and study psychology.”