Sitting slouched in a plastic chair on a cafe terrace facing the sea on a sunny December morning, Abdullah Yahya described his time as a migrant in Libya.
“The militia that arrested us are human traffickers,” the 20-year-old from Sudan told VICE World News. “They held us in prison until we would pay them. The moment we got there we were beaten. Held in a little room and thrown a piece of bread to eat each day.”
Abdullah is one of the hundreds of thousands of migrants who have tried to cross conflict-stricken Libya. If they make it to the sea line, they then set off from the unmonitored coast in feeble boats towards Europe, and what they hope will be good jobs and a better life.
Instead, thousands like Abdullah have ended up in Zarzis, an out-of-the-way port city in southeastern Tunisia, after their sinking boats are towed into Zarzis or they escape Libya’s violence across the desert border. From here, some hope to make another attempt to cross the Mediterranean, others go back home, and some try to make a new life in this unexpected haven.
In January of last year, with no other options for work besides agriculture, Abdullah decided he had to try his luck crossing the Mediterranean to Europe, whatever it took. Leaving behind his mother, he hopped in a car with 30 other people, driving for two days west until they crossed the border into Chad. They drove for days north to Libya’s southern border, where Abdullah worked in a gold mine for a month, 35 meters underground. There, he saved up cash for his onward journey.
“I crossed the border in a car,” Abdullah said. “The Libyan border guards didn’t seem to care. They took ‘taxes’ from some, but the rest they just let pass. No visa, nothing.”
After work in another mine just inside Libya, he and the others were deposited in the southern desert city of Umm El Aranib. There they hid out for two weeks, too afraid to leave the house.
“It was a terrorist city full of militias. We couldn’t go outside after dark, or we could be attacked,” Abdullah said, exhaustedly.
Over the course of another month, Abdullah was smuggled in taxis and trucks, hiding from militias and armed gangs in a half dozen more cities, until he reached the northwestern coastal city of Zawiya.
He worked digging ditches for water pipes in Zawiya’s port, making just enough money to pay for his place on a boat across the Mediterranean.
Finally, in April of 2020, Abdullah found himself waiting on the beach in a line of 75 other migrants, waiting to jump aboard the boat.
“But that’s when the militias came, wearing masks,” he said. “They fired into the air and we ran for our lives.”
He made it home, but not long after the militias came looking for him, and arrested him. That’s when they took him to prison. “They brought me to the prison of the Oussama militia. I stayed there for six months. This is where they beat us. And this is where you have to pay to get free.”
Abdullah spent six months in the Oussama militia’s prison, finally escaping when around 50 others made a break for it. He and friends took a car farther west to the last town before the Tunisian border, then walked to the border post with Tunisia. He walked another 12 hours to the city of Medenine, to the south of Zarzis.
“I found the Red Crescent office in Medenine, and slept out front until they came to get me,” he remembered. “They put me in a house for six days, then brought me to Zarzis,” in September 2020, Abdullah said.
On a tackily decorated cafe terrace facing the beach in Zarzis, Monji Slim, president of the Tunisian Red Crescent’s branch in Medenine province – where Zarzis is located – told VICE World News about the migrants and refugees waiting it out in the city.
“Throughout Medenine we have around 1,200 asylum seekers, refugees and migrants,” Slim said. “But it fluctuates. There is always movement – some people are coming, or leaving by sea, or going back to Libya, or moving on to other areas of Tunisia to work.”
Slim said that Tunisia is almost never the final destination. “First they want to go directly from Libya to Europe. But when they have problems with their smugglers or go to prison, or the women are abused, they escape from Libya and come here for protection. Or, the coast guard picks them up at sea, when their motors fail and they drift into Tunisian waters,” Slim said.
But the coronavirus crisis made circumstances harder.
“First [the government] closed the Tunisian-Libyan border in March, and all the migrants being abused in Libya couldn’t get into Tunisia,” he added. “And since April, they lost their jobs. We tried to support them with vouchers, but it wasn’t enough.”
Sub-Saharan African migrants working in Tunisia, the vast majority of them in the informal sector with no labour protections, have been some of the worst victims of the coronavirus-driven economic crisis. According to the Mixed Migration Centre, in the first half of 2020, 94 percent of migrants and refugees in Tunisia who were employed before the pandemic hit lost their jobs.
“Though,” Slim added with a chuckle, “because of the economic crisis [impacted by coronavirus], Tunisians have been leaving to Europe in such high numbers that they’ve left jobs behind,” noting that Zarzis is a major departure point for Tunisians migrating irregularly to Europe.
Plus, he added, winter is olive picking season — a good time for migrants stuck in Zarzis to find daily agricultural jobs freed up by the exodus of Tunisians.
In an olive processing factory outside the city, VICE World News met Philomène and her eight-year-old son Junior, migrants from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
She spent eight months in Libya, where she was held in prison with other migrants. Trying to cross to Europe by boat, her boat overturned in heavy waves.
“It was a huge accident,” she said. “The helicopter came for us, but only saved 32 out of 125 [migrants].”
The humanitarian organisation SOS Méditerranée rescued Philomène and her son, who was poisoned with boat fuel. “I spent a year and a half recuperating in Medenine,” she remembers. “Mr Monji paid for my treatment, and brought me here.” While she gathers money picking and processing olives, Philomène is thinking of trying the crossing again.
“I’m better here, psychologically, than in Libya,” she said. “But if there’s a boat here in Zarzis, I’ll try to cross again.”
A few kilometres south of the city centre of Zarzis is the municipal stadium, looming on the roadside. About a kilometre behind the stadium, amid a field patched with olive trees and a camel coral, is the jointly-run Tunisian Red Crescent and International Organisation for Migration (IOM) shelter where hundreds of migrants live.
Outside, young men in beanie caps and dusty sweaters stand around talking, kicking at the dirt. A guard sits on a stool by the building wall, looking out for unwelcome passersby.
Abdullah lives in a facility similar to this one but run by the UNHCR, farther outside Zarzis and more isolated. Because of the aversion to press coverage of the facility, VICE World News was not able to visit the building.
But in Zarzis African Kitchen, a restaurant close to the city centre run by a Nigerian refugee named Samuel, Abdullah can speak freely. He talked about the doldrums of a life he leads in Zarzis while waiting for the next move.
Abdullah said he spends his time mostly in the migrant dormitory, whiling away the hours on a smartphone while sitting on a mattress on the concrete floor with his Sudanese roommates.
“Otherwise, I sit in the cafe, or I go around the market [in central Zarzis],” he said. “But some days I don’t go outside at all.”
He has no Tunisian friends, noting that they don’t mix much. “But about 70 percent of the Tunisians I meet are OK,” he said.
“I’ve got a couple of Sudanese friends I met here,” he added, nodding to his friend Amin, from Sudan’s Kordofan region, sitting by his side. Sudanese make up the third-largest registered refugee group in Tunisia.
Abdullah said the Tunisian Red Crescent gives him and the others in the shelter 30 Tunisian dinars ($11) per week to get by.
Amin unfolded a piece of paper. “They give us these little vouchers. We can only spend them all at once,” Amin said.
Abdullah applied for resettlement with the UNHCR late last year. He hopes to go to the UK or Canada. But while he waits, his life in Zarzis is precarious. He claimed that UNHCR tried to cut off his money allowance and kick him and the others out of the shelter after three months, telling them to, “Figure it out on your own.”
It was only after Abdullah, Amin, and others led a protest march directly into the UNHCR local headquarters demanding to stay that they were allowed to keep their housing.
UNHCR in Zarzis says otherwise. Naoufel Tounsi, the director of the Zarzis UNHCR office, noted that UNHCR’s mandate covers only those who are classified as refugees or those requesting refugee status. This would cover Abdullah and Amin, who, as of Tuesday of this week, have official refugee status.
As for the protest against expulsions from the UNHCR dormitory, Tounsi said: “We never kick out those [under our care] from the housing we provide. We find secondary solutions. However, if one of our residents causes a major problem or breaks the law, then of course the law must be applied.”
He added: “We have people every day in front of the [local UNHCR] office demanding assistance and refusing to work. Some are indeed handicapped. But our resources are limited and since the COVID crisis, our budget is minimal. So, we choose carefully to whom to give assistance.”
Chaffar Abdessamad, a senior shelter coordinator with IOM in Zarzis, said that his organisation makes it clear to refugees and migrants from the get-go that they can only be supported for so long.
“The Sudanese people are always complaining about their problems with UNHCR, because Sudanese are automatically considered as refugees, not migrants,” he said, noting the fact that it’s UNHCR’s responsibility to care for refugees and resettle them.
“When we have newcomers that arrive at our shelter, we explain to them that they’ll be supported for two months. After 60 days, we don’t tell them that they have to leave. But we won’t provide their assistance like food and clothing. And medical care won’t be as comprehensive as it was for new arrivals.”
Abdessamad claimed that most of those coming to the shelter get used to Zarzis quickly, finding a local job and housing before the two months are up.
Whatever the amount of allowance given and shelter provided to migrants in Zarzis, it is clear that the Tunisian state provides almost no special service to the migrants.
“Education for migrant kids is the only thing the state can provide,” said Abdessamad.
Zarzis is not only a shelter for migrants caught between home and Europe. It’s also a graveyard for those from the sea.
The Red Crescent and IOM shelter sits adjacent to a cemetery, where Monji Slim and his colleagues inter the bodies of migrants that wash up on at shore, or are found in the sea by local fishermen.
With the Tunisian Coast Guard so limited in patrol range and with meagre resources, southeastern Tunisian fishermen have become seaborne Samaritans saving waves of migrants leaving Libyan shores over the past decade. They coordinate with both local and European coastguards pulling those from the sea whose boat motors have failed or are sinking.
Fisherman Chemsidin Bourasile described to VICE World News the role he and his colleagues have unexpectedly taken on as both the ambulance and hearse of the sea.
“I’ve seen terrifying things,” he said, choking up. “Around 2011 [right after the Tunisian Revolution] it was getting hard to fish because there were so many corpses in the water. We found a mother with her baby in the water.”
Some fishermen are even trained in sea rescue by organisations like Doctors Without Borders. “Our role as fishermen [around stranded migrants] is to call the authorities when we find a boat and give them the location, Bourasile added. “If we have to save them, we can, and bring them into port.”
One of the problems in saving the countless migrants at sea is coordination. Bourasile said that Tunisia’s Coast Guard is woefully underprepared.
“Sometimes we call the Coast Guard to save a boat, and they don’t respond,” he said. “They have half the equipment they should have to save migrants or to stop illegal fishing. We even gave the Coast Guards one of our docks.”
And despite the sailors’ uphill struggle to save those braving the sea to get to Europe, the migrants keep flowing out from Libya – and Zarzis too.
“Even now in winter, if the weather is nice, we find boats out on the water.”
Abdullah has given up the idea of crossing the sea again. But his friend Amin is still hopeful.
“A lot of us here in Zarzis are going back to Libya,” Amin said. “I knew two Somalis who got smuggled back into Libya a month ago to take a boat again. If I found a way, I would go back too.”
As for Abdullah, he waits. Returning to Libya is not an option. “There’s nothing but war in Libya. I wouldn’t go back,” he said.
But he can’t leave Zarzis in a boat either, saying it would cost more than he could earn locally. And going back to Sudan?
“I would only ever visit home when I’m living in the UK, and I have money.”