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The obsession of leaving the country for Europe seems to be “the sacred dream” of a Tunisian youth possessed by despair and fear for the future. Most of the young ones don’t see any hope in staying in a country which has become the equivalent of “a big prison” governed by old people and controlled by the corruption mafias that have recovered from “the 14th of January Revolution”, during which some of those same young people had chanted “Employment is a right, you gang of thieves” and “the people want to topple the regime”.
Frustration or protest?
Eight years after the uprising, the powerful gangs are even more prolific. The regime didn’t fall and the young dreams of change have faded. So, the daily discussions between young people in the coffee shops, the bars and on social media, are centered around “Al hijja” which means, in Tunisian dialect, “leaving to go anywhere”. The expression in Tunisian dialect doesn’t only mean “leaving”, it also expresses a symbolic rupture with a reality that is described as being “unbearable”.
In that sense, the choice of migration resembles more a protest or resistance move in which the migrant engages in playing a symbolic game with death. The “border burners” are adventurers who may reach the brink of death. Yet, even if they’re saved, they always decide to keep trying to achieve their dreams of arriving to Europe, getting a job that allows them to live a decent life, marrying a European woman to get a residence permit, getting a car and sending the remaining money to their families.
Simple dreams... The young people fleeing the hell of the “southern shores of the Mediterranean” do not dream of becoming rich. They just want to be “like the others”, integrated and treated with respect. The point is to prove their existence, something they were unable to do in their own country. When talking to those who are thinking about immigrating irregularly, or with those who have tried and failed for one reason or another, we find that the main feeling they express is that “life here is difficult”, that they are “despised” and that no one cares about them.
Police brutality confines them to the districts where they usually live -urban popular neighborhoods or villages in the countryside abandoned by the state -, where unemployment, poverty, the absence of basic infrastructure and widespread violence are accompanied by a set of traditional moral values that control and monitor private desires and conduct. Many of those who seek to immigrate irregularly or those who have tried and failed have constituted a perception of themselves and of their country which does not conform to the traditional frameworks, starting with how they relate to their families and down to their experiences with the education system which expelled most of them out to the streets without any competencies.
The choice of migration resembles a protest or resistance move that relies on playing a symbolic game with death. The “border burners” are adventurers who may reach the brink of death. Yet, even if they’re saved, they always decide to keep trying to achieve their dreams, which are rather simple.
Studies show that over 120 thousand Tunisians stop their education each year and that more than half of them are in a “waiting situation”, without work, without qualifications and not actively looking for employment. The education system has lost its legitimacy in the beginning of the nineties with the rise of unemployment among “holders of higher education degrees”, the marked decline of public schooling and the rise of private education, under the weight and duress of the market economy, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund which have transformed the State into a mere security guard, administering the people’s misery while protecting the rich from the “violence of the poor”.
On the rites of passage to Lampedusa
Yet what is important is not the causal relations nor the objective structural factors that drive many young Tunisians to leave their lives and do something so extreme. It is rather the personal experiences, the voices of the actors themselves and the justifications they provide to explain what triggers their involvement in irregular migration.
To understand “border burning” as a social movement, it is essential to listen to the “border burners” as active actors capable of justifying the action of burning the borders and of constructing a subjective narrative of it that represents their motivations; making their stories of forced displacements not just “stories to be told”, but also meaningful and significant “rites of passage”. They tell the stories of their attempts to escape a miserable reality by risking their lives for the sake of the dreams they think they are going to achieve. They recount their failures while insisting to try again. Those personal narratives of border burning are, of course, difficult to apprehend without situating them inside a social, economic and political context.
The story of crossing to the Italian shores starts with catching the hidden thread that links the “dreamers of Europe” to the organized networks of irregular migration. The “thread”, in the language of the border burners, means the “intermediate” who will do the coordination to bring those who want to immigrate to a defined place at the defined moment. The cost for border burning is between 1000 and 2000 dollars for each individual. This price is non-negotiable as the demand is high. Most of the time, the intermediates have the necessary experience in this line of work. They know how to hide from the security forces as they actually have a good networking relationship with the agents with whom they exchange “friendly” services to divert surveillance. Some of the security agents might even directly supervise the border burning operations. In that sense, irregular migration is part of an informal economy which makes big profits. The state deals with it as such, forbidding it sometimes and allowing it to happen other times, depending on the circumstances.
Police brutality confines these young people to the districts where they live -urban popular neighborhoods or villages in the countryside abandoned by the state -, where unemployment, poverty, the absence of basic infrastructure and widespread violence are accompanied by a set of traditional moral values that control and monitor private desires and conduct.
There is therefore an alternative story about the authorities, irregular migration and corruption. But, what embarrasses the official authorities most is not the fact that there are huge numbers of young people immigrating irregularly, nor the big number of victims drowning in the sea, nor even the scandals erupting around security cover-ups… The embarrassment comes from the European Union which keeps on reminding the Tunisian state that it should do a better job in guarding its territorial waters and commit to its role as a policeman. Needless to say, the European counterpart has many persuasive methods to put Tunisia under pressure.
Border burners in the “waiting rooms”
Border burners also have their waiting rooms. Of course, they don’t resemble the ones in airports where there are coffee shops, bars, glasses of cold beer and travelers going around the world. In the border burners’ waiting rooms, things are very different. There is only one destination, the Italian island of Lampedusa, and the date and time of departure are in the hands of the journey’s organizers and the boat’s captain. The boat is often overcrowded as the more passengers it carries, the more financial gain there will be for the organizers. The waiting time varies but it never lasts more than 5 days, and the wait itself is a decisive moment for the irregular migrants in their journey. The waiting phase is called “Taqween” (nesting), and the place is called “Quona” (the hen house), where those who have decided to leave irregularly are gathered in a place chosen by the organizers. Often, this place is close to the departure point (most journeys depart from the shores of the cities of Sfax, Zarzis or Kelibia). The groups awaiting immigration are under the organizers’ authority whose orders must be obeyed. The members of a group come from different parts of the country but the border burners don’t travel alone. They immigrate in small groups tied by kinship relations or friendship. The need for solidarity is important especially that sometimes clashes might occur within the group, during the waiting period or while sailing over the sea.
Hicham, who comes from the city of Al-Rudayyif in the governorate of Gafsa in the south of Tunisia, speaks about his experience of the “waiting room” on the shores of the city of Sfax, “I thought we would be in a normal apartment. I didn’t expect a luxurious place but that there would be the bare minimum, like toilets for example. We were put in a poultry farm and we sat on asphalt. I was lucky because I was one of the firsts to arrive so I found myself a mattress. As for the food, we would pay two dollars each for a sandwich of tuna with a little bit of harissa (hot chili paste). Whenever we protested, they would tell us that this is what’s available. Sometimes, clashes erupt among the group members so the neighbors notice our presence and we therefore have to relocate. In this case, we move at night, on foot, and each person on his own must carefully pass through the olive trees. The “hen house” is heaven in comparison to other places. Once, we found ourselves in a mosque under construction, without a roof. We were extremely cold especially at night, but we had to stay like that for four days… After that, they told us that we were going to embark. It was 11 at night… They put us – more than 300 persons – in a truck (Hicham pauses as he tries to remember). On the way to the departure point we heard nothing but the words “open the door” and “close the door”… Next to me was a kid screaming “I am going to faint”… I told him, “you have to be patient, we will get there… You decided to risk your life and this is only one percent of what is awaiting you. There was a shortage of oxygen to the point I felt that each minute passed like an hour. We were not searched by any security patrol despite the fact that the place where we waited was only a few meters away from a police station.”
The boat is moving: Conflicting feelings
The hell of waiting was over and the journey on the sea began. This is why going through the experience of the wait is essential. It is one of the many rites of passage and a crossing line between what was and what will be. Failure can happen during the “nesting” period. The migration operation can be aborted by security or by collusion between the organizers and the security forces who share the profits afterwards.
The possibility of circumventing the operation is always present and everything is to be expected. The only guarantee is to reach the shores of Lampedusa. Thus, getting on the boat and sailing marks the passing of the “waiting test”. When embarking on the boat, the feelings are conflicted between hope and fear… The boat carries more than 150 persons. If it is in a good state, the border burners feel reassured, because the eventuality of drowning is therefore reduced. However, the migrants remain anxious about any unexpected circumstances as they are not in control of anything that happens along the way.
In those moments, the border burners leave their identities, their history, their personal pain, their country and its miseries behind them. Some of them read verses of the Quran when embarking. On the boat, we can hear screams whenever the waves get very high. At other times, the boat is enveloped in silence.
The ability of the boat’s captain to deal with surprises at sea is decisive. Most of those who sail the irregular migration’s boats are former sailors who worked as fishermen. Their involvement in the transportation of irregular migrants is a consequence of the crisis affecting the minor sailors who are not supported by the state and who have to compete, at the same time, with the owners of bigger boats. The professionalism of the sailor is reassuring for the border burners, but the idea of death never leaves their minds nevertheless. They do not wear a life jacket because they have assimilated that death is part of the venture of irregular migration, and that, in the event of the boat overturning, death is an inevitable outcome anyway.
Right before the boat departs, the migrants usually call their relatives, one of their siblings, their mother or their father. They don’t call to say goodbye but to give them notice that they are on their way to Lampedusa. Irregular migration is a way to save oneself as an individual but it is also a family investment. Many families finance their sons and encourage them to leave.
The education system has lost its legitimacy in the beginning of the nineties with the rise of unemployment among “holders of higher education degrees”, the marked decline of public schooling and the rise of private education under the weight and duress of the market economy, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund which have transformed the State into a mere security manager, protecting the rich from the “violence of the poor”.
This phenomenon has many explanations. The most prevalent one is that the family is no longer a safe network that protects individuals. It has become vulnerable. When trying to talk about the boat’s departure, Hicham has trouble describing the moment consistently, “before the boat departed I called my brother. I didn’t feel like talking to anyone else. I called him to say we were going to depart. I thought it was one in the morning but it was actually ten at night and no one had gone to sleep yet… If I had known the real time I wouldn’t have called… I had conflicted feelings… I was happy because I was about to leave and scared that security guards might stop us – even though I was almost sure this wouldn’t happen… I was also scared of dying… But the prevalent feeling was one of happiness… The idea that you are now leaving the country to achieve your dreams… We had moments of fear when the engine of the boat died in the middle of the sea… One person in the group had a relative working with the security. He called him and we managed to get a G.P.S. signal. The Tunisian coast guards called us and told us that the Italian cost guards were coming to rescue us… We stayed for four hours with the Italian coast guards… They were asking us about the number of the cell phone which was thrown at sea. They wanted to make sure that we were the ones who called… After that, they took us to Lampedusa. We arrived safely.”
Anwar, an irregular migrant who was recently repatriated from Lampedusa to Tunisia, also described his feeling at the moment of departure, “I was overwhelmed with happiness as we were getting further away from the Tunisian shores… We were scared of security but the possibility of death didn’t even cross my mind.”
Lampedusa: We arrived safely, but…
Arriving means that the journey was successful despite the moments of fear and doubt. The border burners don’t only think about the dreams they have risked their lives for, but also about arriving safely, which is the first step closer to achieving their dreams. The biggest concern of the border burners is the risk of being repatriated to Tunisia and expelled from the “paradise of the north of the Mediterranean” to the “hell of its South”.
Migrants are usually welcomed by volunteers from Italian and European associations fighting to change the migration policies adopted by the European Union. They provide the newcomers with water, juice and covers.
The migrants don’t find themselves strolling in the streets of Rome or Palermo after that. They are placed in accommodation centers after some bureaucratic procedures of a security nature, with questions on their nationalities and identification documents.
Their fingerprints are taken and some medical procedures are applied. Some of the border burners adopt the strategy of changing their names and hiding their nationalities. They do not have identity cards with them, only their smartphones. Others decide to tell their real names. Each one acts according to their previous experiences, the degree of coercion applied during the investigation and their predetermined agreements with the group they came with.
What embarrasses the official authorities most is not the fact that there are huge numbers of young people immigrating irregularly, nor the big number of victims drowning in the sea, nor even the scandals erupting around security cover-ups… The real embarrassment comes from the European Union which keeps on reminding the Tunisian State that it should do a better job guarding its territorial waters and commit to its role as a policeman.
The accommodation center in Lampedusa is yet another waiting room. The migrants are allowed to leave the center but remain under the surveillance of the Italian security forces which make sure they return to the center. They go out to buy some of their basic needs or to call their relatives. Their phones stay with them. But, most of the times, when they leave the center, their objective is to find a way to escape from the small island. Hicham told us about his attempt to steal a small boat with a few friends in order to escape. They had failed because the fuel in the boat was not sufficient.
The border burners hate the food they are offered in the center. They only eat the potatoes, the cake, some rice and the apple. From time to time, they are allowed to have a cigarette and eat some dessert, but the dessert they are offered contains sedatives that relax their bodies and diminish their sexual desires. The centers are hence not only places of accommodation for irregular migrants, but also a way to control and dominate their bodies. The border burners despise the Tunisian translators working with the Italian authorities during the investigations. They see them as apathetic traitors who ignore the conditions that pushed them to leave their country in the first place.
It is up to the Italian authorities to allow the migrants to leave Lampedusa. Otherwise, the only way out is to escape. The most feared outcome in this case is to be repatriated to Tunisia. To the border burners, repatriation is as bad as a death sentence.
Repatriation: Hoping for a plane crash
Border burners in Europe get acquainted with European friends, relatives and women through Facebook. They rely on them to help them start anew in Europe. The migrants who don’t have these kinds of networks will do everything to create one. Those who escape repatriation work in precarious simple labor. Some others take “risks”, which means that they do unlawful things like drug dealing. Getting to Lampedusa doesn’t necessarily mean the success of the migration, as the Italian authorities might eventually decide on repatriation, with the approval of the Tunisian authorities.
Nobody knows the exact number of Tunisians being repatriated from Italy because the Tunisian authorities hide this information. The “Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights” says there are thousands. There is no “civil society” to welcome them back home as there is only a few associations in Tunisia working on migration.
The repatriated ones arrive to Enfidha’s airport in the south of the capital, where the travelers are much fewer than those in the Carthage International Airport, which is the main airport of the country. Enfidha’s airport is used for commercial flights or very special journeys such as the repatriation of irregular migrants or of those who have been accused of terrorism in Europe. The repatriated migrants are received away from the journalists’ eyes as the security forces manage everything.
The repatriated ones tell us the story of the security reception in Enfidha’s airport. They say it is generally not rough, and all that is asked of them is cooperation, which means no lying. They are asked about their religious practices in order to detect any terrorist affiliations among them. The other questions revolve around the departure point of the border burners, who facilitated their travel, how they had gathered the required amount of money, what kind of car had transported them from the waiting point to the boat, and so on. The security forces deal with the migrants as a source of information. Some of the agents openly confess their sympathy for the repatriated ones, expressing their desire to burn the borders as well, as many security agents come from the same social class as the repatriated ones. The situation, as they describe it, is that “everybody is fed up with living in the country”.
From time to time, the irregular migrants are allowed to have a cigarette and eat some dessert, but the dessert they are offered contains sedatives that relax their bodies and diminish their sexual desires. The centers are hence not only places of accommodation for irregular migrants, but also a way to control and dominate their bodies.
The most painful phase of the repatriation experience is its beginning, in Italy. The Italian authorities decide to repatriate big groups of irregular migrants to the countries they came from. The repatriation process is subjected to bureaucracy and security procedures that the repatriated find very tough. The chosen groups are not warned about the time of repatriation and the operation happens by surprise. The security agents arrive to the accommodation center suddenly with a list of names of the people to be repatriated. They get searched thoroughly in a way that humiliates their human dignity.
The migrants realize at that moment that they are going to be repatriated. The stories they have heard from those who made the journey before help them to interpret the comportment of the Italian security agents. They are then transported in buses to meet the Tunisian consul in the city of Milano. He is the representative of the Tunisian State responsible for confirming that those being repatriated are indeed Tunisians. The migrants say that the consul treats them with a harshness that resembles that of the authorities in Italy. One of the migrants told us that he felt that the Tunisian consul was an agent of the Italian authorities! Ahmad said, “I am from the city of Zarzis, our dialect can be confused with the Libyan one. I told him I was not Tunisian and that I was sentenced for two-years of imprisonment in Libya. His answer was very cold, he told me: “You had better leave now, or else the sentence will become two years and a half in Tunisia.” Ahmad thinks that the consul could have accepted his argument and saved him from repatriation… After the interrogation, the repatriated migrants sign some papers written in Italian. They can’t read those papers and nobody is there to provide a translation for them. Afterwards, they are taken to the airport. Each repatriated migrant is accompanied by a security agent in civilian attire. Some have attempted to escape from the airport but they are always caught by the police.
In the airplane, a feeling of pain prevails, and everyone feels like a failure. They have lost their own money and the money of their families who were counting on them when they financed the “costs of the border burning”. Everybody wishes for the plane to crash or explode in the skies. Ahmad, who was sent to an accommodation center in the city of Catania before repatriation, says, “in the accommodation center in Catania, there is no hope of escaping. It is designed like a military casern, surrounded by the army and the policemen. There are buses waiting outside. Before getting to Catania, I met with the Tunisian consul in Milano. I asked him whether the ones that were spared from repatriation were better people than us. I begged him to please allow us to stay. His answer was cold. He said that no one was going to stay here and that we would all be repatriated. He was asking why we had left, how and from which place. You feel that he is an agent. A person from his own country comes to him telling him that he had lived through misery and hunger and that only God knows how he managed to get here (he pauses), I just told him, “May God guide you to do the right thing”. Then I signed some papers without knowing what they were about and I left. I stayed in Catania for 15 days.
On the day of repatriation, the agents came. They were so huge that you don’t even consider resisting them. They searched us scrupulously. They asked me to remove my pants and I refused, which they accepted, actually. Then, they took the phones and shoelaces and any other laces we had. When we got to the airport in Palermo, they removed the handcuffs and we were accompanied by security agents in civilian clothes.
In the plane, each of us satin their place and no one was allowed to stand. When we arrived, they only brought us to the plane’s gate and left. When I was in the plane, I felt like there was no more hope, I was suffocating. You think about the moment you left the country. You think of your mother and father. Everybody in that plane was praying to God for it to crash”.
Repatriation is a cruel experience that brings an unbearable feeling of personal failure. In the first days after repatriation, the migrants who went through it hunker down. After that, they go back to working precariously to continue living. Some of them start a family and stop thinking about border burning.. Others try again or at least think about giving it another try. The experience becomes a shaping factor of their identities. They now have a “story” to tell, after having lived without any particular personal stories. Some of them take pride in the experience while many become more psychologically fragile, especially given the economic context in which they live. For the migrants we interviewed, the country hasn’t changed. Many have expressed their hatred of the local news which they consider to be against them as it often describes them as being citizens who don’t love their county, criminals or lazy people who don’t even seek employment.
Irregular migration: Reshaping the borders
Irregular migration is not only a phenomenon related to economic and political factors; it is also a social experience lived individually. It belongs to a world where uncertainty and inequalities are increasing. But when it comes to the relation between Europe and the south of the Mediterranean, irregular migration can also be understood as an operation related to the reconstruction of borders, where the existence of borders doesn’t prevent the flow of migrants.
Irregular migrants have an impact on borders, just like the borders impact them. In that sense, German sociologist Ulrich Beck considers these migrants to be “border artists”.
They tamper with the classical and official borderlines between countries and disrupt their contradictory legal systems. For irregular migrants, the borders have to be used and diverted but, most importantly, they have to be crossed. This is precisely where the political relation between Europe and the south of the Mediterranean – and precisely Tunisia – lies. Ongoing negotiations with the authorities under the pressure of European “conditions” aim at decreasing the numbers of migrants and pushing towards upholding the classical border demarcations. But whatever decisions might result from those negotiations, they are unlikely to put a halt to the “seasons of migration to the North”.
The content of this publication is the sole responsibility of Assafir Al-Arabi and Rosa Luxemburg Foundation cannot accept any liability for it.
Translated from Arabic by Fourate Chahal Rekaby
Published in Assafir Al-Arabi on 03/10/2018
*The testimonies are parts of semi-structured interviews conducted during a field research of “the Tunisian Forum for Political and Economic Rights” on irregular migrants being repatriated from Italy. We would like to thank them for allowing us to use parts of those testimonies in this article.