Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Narrow Mediterranean Passage

An excerpt from my latest article for Middle East Eye, the story of one migrant's nightmarish journey from Tunisia to Italy and the hellish route back:

“It’s not easy for migrants to just get on a boat and just go to the sea. You hand yourself to death,” Mohammed Haj Frej says at a cafe in the coastal Tunisian town of Monastir.

Frej knows only too well the risks young Tunisians are taking to try and reach a better life in Europe. Perilous journeys he has attempted in recent years have left him physically injured and mentally shaken. 

He tried his first and second crossings in 2008 when he was just 23 – one of a sea of young and often educated Tunisians who attempt the trip. Frej has a degree in IT, but like many other says he didn’t have the right connections to get a job.

While his first two attempts failed, in 2011 an apparent window of opportunity opened. Following the overthrow of President Zine Abidine Ben Ali, rumours began circulating that Tunisian security forces had stopped patrolling the waters and the path to Europe was clear.

Emboldened by the reports, Frej scrounged 1,500 dinars ($950) and paid the captain of a seven-metre boat to take him from the Tunisian town of Zarzis to the Italian island of Lampedusa. Nearly 200 other Tunisians made the journey with him.

The following excerpt was not included in the article online, but I find these quotations give us a bit more understanding of the historical context:

“They would curse me and I would curse them even more. And I would always focus on one phrase. I would say Forza Hitler, and that’s the thing they hate the most,” he says, possibly a reference to the Italian political party of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Forza Italia, whose members have veered into perceived racist rhetoric.

Mohammed Haj Salem, a friend of Frej’s, hails from the same seaside town of Qseybt al-Madyouni. According to Salem, the older generation of people living in the town used to travel to Italy freely for temporary work.

“Before, in the 1970s, for example, my father or his father,” Salem says, pointing to Frej, “used to be able to go and work in agriculture without a visa. They would take the boat as if going to some other part of Tunisia. You work and you come back and no one bothers you. They would make some money.”

“There were agricultural areas in Sicily where there wasn’t enough labor, so Tunisians would go in summer, for example, and harvest the tomatoes and the peppers. They would go for two or three months, then the rest of the year they would be in Tunisia.  And that worked, they were satisfied. But then with the EU, they introduced the visa.”
 Read the rest of the online article here.

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