The very great uncertainty in Libya causes many migrants from countries to the south of the Sahara to go to Tunisia. Europe would be happy if these persons would stay in Tunisia and not even attempt to cross the Mediterranean in boats. However, implementing a European agenda is not necessarily one of Tunisia’s main priorities.
They set out northwards with great expectations, with hopes for a training course that would give them new perspectives, or simply with the longing for a better life. But for many of them, Tunisia becomes the country of unrealized plans: they do unskilled work on a building site or in a restaurant and earn, say, 6 or 7 Euros per day. They often live together with others in a confined space, couples and single men, Muslims and Christians. All the same: living together makes the burden of the life and the rent costs bearable. And in the last analysis, the situation in Tunisia, in spite of the low wages, is still better than in their own country, where a war is taking place or at least peace is not flourishing.
Many of them want to travel on further, to Europe. Although there are those who decide against the dangerous crossing to Italy, after friends have lost their lives in the Mediterranean Sea, the majority still tries to earn enough money to pay traffickers for a crossing. “If ten out of every hundred people die, that means that ninety make it, and that it is therefore worth trying” says Eric, a young man from the Ivory Coast, laconically.
The first wave of migrants from countries to the south of the Sahara – mainly students – came to Tunisia between 1970 and 1980, and the foundation of private high schools and universities also attracted a large number of foreign students later on. The problem is however that many of the diplomas acquired in Tunisia bring very few benefits, whereas a degree from a European university is worth a lot more. It is thus hardly surprising that the migrants do not return to their home country. Touré Balamassi, the former President of the Association of African Students and Trainees in Tunisia and one of the founders of the Association for the Leadership and Development of Africa, also came to Tunisia as a student 14 years ago from the Ivory Coast, and has never returned to his home country. “Tunisia, which has always been regarded as a land of departure, has become a land of arrival for the population to the south of the Sahara, against all adversities. But in a way the country wanted this.”
The largest group of foreigners consists not of students or of staff of the African Development Bank, which came here in 2003, but of Libyans. There must be up to about 200,000 persons who fled from Libya after the fall of Gadaffi in 2011, but who, because of their “affluence”, are regarded as expats and not as refugees. Because Tunisia has no modern migration law that is adapted to the possibilities of the country, the Libyans often end up in a similarly illegal situation to persons of other nationalities.
Freddy Nzambe, a pastor of the United Methodist Church, is experiencing the migration problems at first hand in his work in the Reformed Church of Tunis. He not only knows about those who secretly risk the passage to Italy, in order to find a student place, work, or a future in Europe, and who then are refused a residence permit, but he is also aware of the tragic situation concerning the human trafficking which is flourishing in Tunisia. Agencies in countries to the south of the Sahara make great promises about student places or work as a household help. The flight to Tunis is even financed for potential household helps. “But then they take the young women’s passports away until they have paid the costs of the journey – and that can take two or three years”, says Freddy Nzambe. In the meantime the household helps are living illegally in Tunisia and are constantly subject to fear, threats and exploitation. The students likewise soon understand that they have paid a lot of money for nothing and after a few months they are in great difficulties.
Migrants from countries south of the Sahara and from Libya also often experience racism – sometimes verbally, even sometimes in the form of serious physical violence. After many years of preparations, a Tunisian law against incitement to hate and discrimination was passed on 9 October 2018. It still remains to be seen how this law will actually be applied.
Tunisia has drawn the attention of European decision-makers to itself in the last few months. It was suggested that so-called regional landing points could be set up in countries to the south of the Mediterranean. Tunisia has already indicated that it is not in agreement with this. “Rightly so”, says Touré Balamassi, who has regular contact with international organizations and European politicians. “Europe wants sorting centers in countries like Tunisia and Morocco, so that it can choose who can come and who not, whom they need and whom they don’t need. That is not fair.”
Massoud Romdhani, Chairman of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, adds: “It is not our job to prevent people from getting to Europe. We have good relations with African countries, and these centers will not solve the problem, because the “bad news” is that migration will not stop.” Tunisia would therefore like to link current and future free trade agreements with the EU to the migration question. In this connection, Massoud Romdhani says: “We are not advocating open borders. We are advocating more flexibility in granting visas. In the end, young people have the right to seek work. They also have a right to disappointment.”
What does it mean to be a church, to form a viable fellowship, to share beliefs, to alleviate hardship, for people who are arriving, moving on or remaining, who are full of hope or disappointed? The UMC pastor Freddy Nzambe and the people of his congregation are trying again and again to find an answer to these challenging questions.
Source: Samira Bendadi, Mondiaal Nieuws / Office of Bishop Patrick Streiff, Zurich (Switzerland)