Agence Tunis Afrique Press – TAP – We met Fathi al-Salmani (25 years old) a few months ago, during a visit with former Tunisian foreign minister Rafik Abdul Salam in Lampedusa, Italy. This time, we found him in a corner of the immigrant reception center on the island, smoking and drinking coffee. He had lost the majority of his companions during the journey to Lampedusa.
Fathi believes the missing clandestine immigrants turned into food for sea predators, leaving no traces behind except the tears of their bereaved families. Or at least, this is the mental image that Fathi has of the aftermath of one of the voyages undertaken by those dreaming of quick wealth; voyages which have become all too common following the revolution of January 2011 in Tunisia.
After the revolution, the grip of the state and its law enforcement agencies loosened dramatically. Crime groups that facilitate illegal immigration found this an ideal opportunity to move their activities out of the shadows. They went on to operate almost publicly forming networks that spread like cancer in the slums of Tunisian major cities in order to profit from the dreams of its poor and destitute residents.
The often-deadly adventures undertaken by illegal immigrants across the Mediterranean are organized by specialized criminal networks. According to officials we met over the past six months, these networks not only prey on the disadvantaged, but also help fugitives and even dangerous prisoners, who had escaped during the revolution, to flee the country.
Meanwhile, the security services seem to be unable to expose these networks amid a rising number of illegal immigrants, who risk their lives trying to flee abroad. This means only more anguish for the families of those among them who go missing, and more suffering for those who survive, starting at the immigrant reception center in Italy.
According to official figures, more than 30,000 illegal immigrants arrived at the Italian coast in 2011 alone. However, Italian anti-illegal immigration groups put the number of illegal immigrants crossing into Italy after the revolution in Tunisia close to 40.000. No figures are available on the numbers of illegal immigrants who arrived before 2011.
Fathi al-Salmani’s Journey
Salmani, a single jobless young man, embarked on his trip from the coast of Sidi Mansour in the Sfax governorate – 270 km south of Tunis. The boat he boarded there was no bigger than 11×3 meters, and yet it carried 140 other illegal immigrants, including women and children.
The small boat was not in a good condition either. Departure was delayed twice, and then the boat broke down as it sailed, as Salmani recalls. He said, “The boat sailed on Thursday, September 6, 2012. An hour later, the boat broke down again, prompting Phillips, the harraq – [the title of the smuggler, derived from the classical Arabic word, harq, which means “to burn,” as in “to burn ties”] – to send two mechanics to do repairs. The harraq offered to take the passengers back to Tunisia, at the expense of them not asking for a refund,” as the mechanics told them.
A Deadly Game Begins
Before releasing a deep sigh, Salmani, still reeling from the effects of the disaster, put his head between his arms, and continued describing the tribulations he faced on his arduous journey, “After we repaired the damage and while still in the territorial waters, the boat ran out of fuel. Panic and confusion set in, and we lost all hope of continuing the trip. But fate put a merchant vessel on our path, which gave us enough fuel – as the captain told us – to sail for 30 miles. However, our hopes were shattered again after an hour of sailing when the propeller broke and water started leaking into the boat. We were sinking.”
In that trip, 84 passengers drowned and 56 survived. The survivors would later recount how they swam to the island of Lampione, about 28 miles away from where their boat sank. Once there, they set their shirts on fire to point passing airplanes to their whereabouts.
Fathi al-Salmani was one of the lucky few who were subsequently rescued by a German warship.
Suffering Continues at the Immigrant Reception Center
After rescuing or arresting them near Italian shores, the Italian authorities take illegal immigrants to asylum centers, most notably the one located in Lampedusa – the majority of illegal immigrants from North Africa make their way towards this island, which they see as the gateway to the rest of Europe.
The majority of the survivors complain of poor living conditions at the asylum center in Lampedusa. The place does not meet the expectations and fancies of the Harraqin (Tunisian slang for illegal immigrants) about the splendor of life in the Old Continent.
Reham Ben Hafsia has been living at the immigrant center on the island since September 9, 2012. Ben Hafsia said, “Living conditions are inadequate and the center is overcrowded with people from many different nationalities.”
At such centers, illegal immigrants become mere statistics as most of them deliberately refrain from giving information about their names and nationalities in order to avoid being deported back to their countries. Actually, most of these illegal immigrants set out on their journeys without any identification papers as four different immigrants we met in Lampedusa have confirmed.
Nevertheless, according to what we heard from several illegal immigrants we met, the Italian authorities are keen to interrogate the immigrants, to learn their identities and how they had arrived in Italy in order to expose the networks helping smuggle them from their countries of origin.
As a security measure, the fingerprints of the survivors are taken and entered into a database to facilitate the search for missing individuals by comparing them with the fingerprints database in Tunisia compiled with the help of the missing persons’ families. The illegal immigrants are then distributed to immigrant shelters in various parts of Italy until they are deported back to Tunisia or other temporary solutions are found for them. Minors are housed in special centers, where they attend training courses for certain professions and receive language lessons. Some of them are given jobs after undergoing training.
In late 2012, most survivors from the boat that sank on September 6-7, 2012 were deported back home. The exceptions were the captain, the mechanic, and a middleman involved in smuggling immigrants, who were kept in custody for further interrogation in Italy according to sources at the Ministry of Immigration.
In parallel, a case was brought before the Court of First Instance in Sfax, which gave a mandate to the search and inspection team reporting to the National Guard in El Aouina in Tunis to facilitate investigations with the returned illegal immigrants in nearby areas. This took place after the families of some missing individuals filed complaints and stated that they suspected illegal immigration may have been involved in their kin’s disappearance.
Statistics provided by the State Secretariat for Migration to the authors of this report show that the number of individuals deported by the Italian authorities for illegal entry (illegally reaching Italian territory by crossing the maritime border clandestinely) was 4,161 in 2011, compared to only 60 in 2010. The number of those deported for illegal residence was 292 in 2011 compared to 501 in 2010.
The number of individuals deported for both illegal entry and illegal residence between January 2012 and August 31 of the same year was 1,837, including 1,552 for illegal entry.
New networks to smuggle immigrants
In the wake of the revolution new networks that smuggle illegal immigrants across the Mediterranean emerged. Meanwhile, existing ones expanded into faraway inland cities in Tunisia deploying middlemen tasked with hunting would-be migrants. These networks take advantage of loose security to engage in the lucrative business of human trafficking.
Smugglers determine their fees in accordance with supply and demand and the intended destination. These fees range from 2000 to 4000 dinar per immigrant ($1250-$2500).
Immigrant smuggling networks are highly organized and work relentlessly throughout the country, especially in the slums and inland areas of Tunisia. Their middlemen have spread like wildfire in all directions hunting those dreaming to immigrate. These agents receive 300 dinars for each individual they ensnare (around $200).
The chief ‘harraq,’ who supervises logistical preparations for trips to Europe, receives the lion’s share. Ship captains receive up to 5,000 dinars ($3500) for each trip they make to the Italian shore. The middlemen of a smuggling network remain in constant contact with the leader of the network, the ‘harraq,’ according to the testimonies of several who took part in those death voyages and the families of missing clandestine immigrants whom we met.
These ‘harraqs’ are concentrated in the coastal areas, most prominently in Sidi Mansour in Sfax. After the revolution Sidi Mansour became known as the ‘Harraqs’ lair’ given how many illegal immigrants embarked on their trips here in the direction of Italy after the ouster of Ben Ali’s regime.
Most of the testimonies collected by the authors of this report came from immigrants who had been deported back to their country and the families of missing immigrants who confirmed that their trips had originated in Sidi Mansour.
The last boat that sank near the Italian shore had set sail from Sidi Mansour. The boat had 140 people on board of which 78 remain unaccounted for.
However, the newly formed networks and smuggling gangs in Tunisia have since been shifting the routes and ports they use in their operations away from the Italian island of Lampedusa off the coast of Mahdia, Tunisia. The new smuggling runs now head to the shores of Mazara Del Vallo in Sicily. For this, the smugglers are charging double the usual fees according to a number of individuals who took part in such trips.
The suffering of the families of the missing
The families of the survivors might have their minds at ease, especially those who are expecting their immigrating relatives to shower them with large amounts of money. Even those whose relatives died trying to cross the sea can mourn their kin and move on. However, the families of missing clandestine immigrants who disappear on such trips have no way to lay their anguish to rest.
These families hold demonstrations from time to time – either outside the foreign ministry or the State Secretariat for Migration – demanding the government to take action to uncover the fate of their relatives. They have even protested outside the Italian embassy, where the media spokesperson told them candidly that “the embassy cannot offer any help in finding out what happened to your children,” and that the embassy is not concerned with this issue.
Fatima al-Kesrawi (45 years old) is the mother of one of the immigrants who went missing back in March 2011. Her and her family are in a difficult psychological state. She looks anxiously at the last SMS sent by her son from the middle of the Mediterranean before he disappeared. The message said that he was ok.
Fatima pauses then says, “I have gone almost blind from how much I have been crying. Sadness hangs over the house. My despair about never seeing him again led me to accept condolences [for his death]. I am tired, but I still have not lost hope, even in getting his body back.”
Mohammad Ghenai is a young man from Sfax who currently resides in France. He travelled to Lampedusa in search of his missing brother and two of his neighbors who went missing on September 7, 2012: Salim Ghenai, Mohammad Ali Mansar, and Abdul-Salam Ben Abdul-Hamid Ben Nasser.
The man carried their pictures like someone looking for a lost child with visible sadness on his face. Mohammad tried to no avail to meet then-Minister of Foreign Affairs Rafik Abdul Salam at the Palermo airport, Lampedusa airport, and even outside the immigrant reception center on the island in search of any lead that could help shed light on their fate.
Meanwhile, the Technical Committee for Emigration – established in late 2011 under the chairmanship of the Secretary of State for Migration Hussein al-Jaziri and the membership of representatives from the ministries of interior, defense, foreign affairs and justice – has been unable to provide any satisfactory answers about the fate of hundreds of missing clandestine immigrants to their families.
Following Tunisia’s pursuit to get additional answers, the Italian side raised an old-new demand to deport back 3,000 Tunisian prisoners currently languishing behind bars in Italy for offenses related to drugs, violence, robbery, and gangster activity. However, this is something that is impossible for Tunisia to assent to for the time being given the limited prison capacity there according to Assistant Attorney General Sami Ben Howaidy.
The European dream on everybody’s minds
Twenty-two-year-old Ashraf’s family hails from a rural area. The family fell into extreme poverty and destitution after the father, a farmer, sold whatever cattle he owned to cover the fees of his son’s trip to Lampedusa in the hope of improving the family’s finances.
But the attempt to cross into Europe failed and the young man’s dreams were shattered on the rocks off the Italian coast. The family’s investment was lost and its situation only got worse when Ashraf returned to join the swelling ranks of the unemployed.
“I have dreamed of visiting Europe since the days of my childhood,” says Abdul-Muneim (26 years old). The young man dreaming of reaching the other side of the Mediterranean went through two failed attempts to realize his fantasy. The first was in November 2009 through Turkey and Greece and then in November 2011 via Bekalta, a city in the governorate of Monastir, Tunisia.
Mohammad al-Joweili, a professor of sociology, attributes the idea of what he called ‘the European dream’ among young people in Tunisia to their belief that Europe is their alternative to build a better future. He said, “There is a sense among young people that they are on their own and must take matters into their own hands.” Joweili argues the conditions of life at home have exhausted them beyond measure.
“Even pursuing education, which was one of the most important opportunities for achieving social mobility, no longer works given the high rate of unemployment among university graduates,” Joweili added. “As a result, their horizon is blocked and young people only think about emigrating and leaving the country.”
Unemployment and poverty pushing young people towards the unknown
In interviews with the authors of this report, the 56 clandestine immigrants who survived from the boat accident on September 7, 2012 all said that they decided to risk their lives to escape poverty and unemployment. One said, “Unemployment and penury prevented us from realizing even the simplest of our dreams back in Tunisia.”
About 15.5 percent of the population of Tunisia (around 2.7 million people) lives under the poverty line according to the figures of the National Institute of Statistics for the year 2012. Around 25.6 percent of females in the country are unemployed compared to an unemployment rate of 14.6 percent among males.
According to the same source, unemployment touched 17.6 percent in 2012 rising from 14.2 percent in 2008. The number of unemployed individuals in Tunisia after the revolution reached 690,000 including 230,000 who hold higher education degrees.
Strict but non-deterring laws
The incidents at sea, the scores of missing persons, and even the laws and the punishments they sanction have failed to deter the ‘death networks’ from pursuing their illegal activities. Those who are found to be involved in organizing, facilitating, or taking part in illegal immigration are subject to the penalties set forth by Law No. 6 of 2004 dated February 3, 2004, which revised Law No. 40 of 1975 dated May 14 1975, and Law No. 77 of 1998 dated November 2, 1998 (related to passports and travel documents).
The largest penalty of these applies in the event immigrants die. It consists of a 20-year prison sentence in addition to a 100,000 dinar fine. This is while bearing in mind that the majority of these illegal trips end up with several passengers dead or missing.
Although a deterrent legal framework exists, at least in theory, its enforcement depends on securing damning evidence in major cases involving clandestine sailing and smuggling gangs. The sentences involved are up to 20 years in prison according to the Assistant Attorney General Sami Ben Howaidy.
However, due to lack of evidence and the fact that clandestine immigrants are dealt with as victims who were lured and entrapped by criminals, the courts have not given out sentences strong enough to deter immigrant smuggling rings from exploiting the dreams of the needy. These continue to risk their lives, fall into debt, and sell whatever little assets they have to reserve a place on their boats.
According to data compiled by the Ministry of Justice from various courts of first instance, verdicts issued in such cases have ranged from dismissal to fines and suspended prison sentences. Only two courts in Monastir and Sfax issued prison sentences – albeit not exceeding three years – while sentences issued by the rest of the courts ranged from no more than one month to one year.
Currently, the Ministry of Justice is working to collect further data on this practice to identify its peak periods and the ports being used. According to officials at the ministry, prosecutors throughout the republic have been asked to supply the ministry with information on the number of cases being investigated and those that have been processed from 2009 to December 31, 2012.
During this period, the courts have counted about 400 cases related to illegal immigration nationwide. Sfax is the first in the number of cases with the Court of Sfax l receiving 151 such cases including 20 in the first 9 months of 2012, and the Court of Sfax II receiving 15 cases. In Monastir, the number of cases brought before the courts was 97 including 42 from 2011 and 2012.
In this regard, Assistant Attorney General Sami Ben Howaidy says that these figures remain far removed from reality because cases involving trips for illegal immigration may be brought to the attention of other district courts. According to Howaidy, courts in inland regions such as Sidi Bouzid, Gafsa, Kairouan, Kef, Tozeur, and Jendouba did not record any cases of this kind.
The cases brought before these courts were essentially related to involvement in groups with the intention of preparing, facilitating, or brokering trips for illegal immigrants outside Tunisia through other than the official border points and/or without official travel documents.
Despite the many accidents such trips encounter, not to mention routine interception by the Coast Guard, neither the organizers nor the participants have been dissuaded so far from risking their lives.
A special task force at the Ministry of Justice is currently preparing a plan to draft an independent legal framework for illegal immigration, which would toughen up sentences for smuggling immigrants and related acts; in addition to excluding anyone found to be involved from the ability to benefit from mitigating circumstances under Chapter 53 of the Criminal Code.
Despite the legal and legislative framework for the prosecution of those found to be involved in these activities and the rising number of cases brought before Tunisian courts; illegal immigrant trips and arrests resulting from them continue in an almost daily fashion. In the meantime, the number of people dead or missing as a result, as well as people deported back home, is rising to very high levels.
Regardless of the unknown fate of thousands of young illegal immigrants, the Harraqa networks remain active. They continue organizing death voyages for young people in their prime, whom these networks exploit and to whom they sell illusions that do little more than ruin their future and leave their families bereaved for life.
This report was produced with help from ARIJ, Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism, under the supervision of Hani al-Mabrouk and Imad al-Rawashda.