A Tunisian coastguard at sea orders “this last warning, stop” during one of the many daily interceptions of illegal immigrants heading for European shores and not despairing of trying again.
The boat left with them from the Sfax governorate, in the central east of the country, to the Italian coast, but the migrants, who were girdled with black rubber tires, obeyed the orders of the Coast Guard during surveillance operations. , during which an AFP team accompanied them aboard the ship “Esser 35”.
Italy, less than 200 km from the Tunisian coast, announced in May 2021 an agreement with the Tunisian authorities to provide economic aid in exchange for reinforcing the interception of migrants and preventing them from reaching European shores.
Fatim, 18, from the Ivory Coast, boards a coast guard boat with 25 other arrested migrants. “I don’t want to stay in Tunisia. Life here is difficult,” he says.
The immigrant assures that she worked as a domestic worker during her stay in Tunisia, in order to save and collect 4,000 dinars (1,250 euros), which she paid a smuggler in exchange for participating in an attempt to cross by sea.
Idia Sow, a 26-year-old Guinean woman who has suffered the consequences of a stroke, was part of another group whose inflatable boat was intercepted. Idia confirms that she spent the equivalent of 1,500 euros to reach the Italian coast with her three-month-old baby.
Overnight alone from Monday to Tuesday, at least 130 migrants, all from sub-Saharan Africa, including minors and children, took part in four failed crossing attempts off the coast of Sfax, the main departure point for migrants from Tunisia.
However, upon arrival at the port of Sfax, the migrants are released again according to the decisions of the agent general of the governorate.
The patrol leader, Major Ibrahim Fahmy, says: “We are in a vicious circle. We are making tremendous efforts to arrest these immigrants just to release them, and as a result we will find them through other attempts.”
Most of the migrants intercepted by the coast guard interviewed by AFP say they will, in fact, try to cross again. “If I find a boat now, I will leave immediately, I will never give up,” says Ali, a 20-year-old Guinean.
Hours before the boat was intercepted, the police dispersed more than 100 immigrants who had gathered in the coastal area of Hamizia, about thirty kilometers from Sfax, where they had been waiting for two weeks for the boats that were to take them to the Italian coast. , according to testimonies collected by AFP.
Police, some of whom were armed, forced the migrants to leave, according to an AFP correspondent.
The director of the Naval Guard in the central region (Sfax, Kerkennah and Mahdia), Brigadier General Saber Younesi, tells AFP that “during this summer we registered a record number of more than 17,000 immigrants” during interceptions, which represents “nearly double compared to previous years.”
“Sfax has become a hub (for illegal immigration), although it is not the closest to Italian shores, and shipping operations are difficult compared to other coastal areas,” he added.
The Sfax region witnessed a development in illegal boat manufacturing which consequently contributed to the increase in the number of “harragas”, who are middlemen who traffic people in the region.
Tunisia has been going through a suffocating economic and political crisis for years, and the number of illegal immigrants has begun to increase, with the participation not only of the unemployed, but also of entire families and even managers.
The latest official figures reveal that more than 22,500 migrants have been intercepted off the Tunisian coast since the beginning of this year, including some 11,000 of sub-Saharan African nationalities.
During the same period, 536 smugglers were arrested, including 21 foreigners.
In an interview with AFP at the port of Sfax, where a large number of seized ships were collected, Younesi notes: “If this pattern continues, we may reach a point where we can no longer control the phenomenon.”
The head of security warns that Tunisia’s means of combating illegal immigration “began to deteriorate and we are facing maintenance difficulties. … We need more international cooperation.”