Illegal emigration of young Tunisians to Europe during and after the revolution remains a contentious issue. This matter has yet to be addressed extensively both by Tunisian authorities and within civil society. Approximately 1,800 illegal Tunisian immigrants have been found in Italy according to the Tunisian Association for Employment and Immigration’s (ATEE) ongoing investigation into the phenomenon.
The association, which was created on September 11th, 2011, aims at conducting research addressing employment and immigration. Mokhtar Agrebi, president of ATEE, stated that most illegal immigrants come from the center and south of Tunisia.
A total of 24,500 Tunisian nationals have landed on the small Italian island of Lampedusa since the onset of the Tunisian Revolution, which forced former President Ben Ali to flee the country in January 2011. Half of these illegal immigrants were granted a limited-term Italian residence permit on the basis humanitarian concerns. They were granted freedom to move within the Schengen area (26 countries of the EU that signed an agreement to allow for free movement within the borders of this area), according to the Swiss Federal Migration Office report, published in late 2011.
During the same year, the European border agency, Frontex, concluded in a report that the majority of the 24,500 Tunisians who left Tunisia since the outbreak of the Tunisian Revolution were fleeing civil unrest in their home country. Tunisian asylum-seekers stayed temporarily on the Italian island of Lampedusa. However, many were returned after a bilateral agreement was signed between the Tunisian and Italian governments to repatriate them to Tunisia.
The Tunisian branch of the International Office of Migration (IOM) stated that the number of illegal immigrants decreased after an initial increase immediately following January 14th, 2011. Many of these illegal immigrants, particularly minors, approached IOM to go back to Tunisia. 60% of the 24,500 Tunisians went to France, 10% returned from France, and approximately 15% returned voluntarily to Tunisia – according to the Tunisian association, Pontes.
Pontes is a Tunisian association based in Milan, Italy. It is a non-partisan, non-religious association founded in 2006 for the purpose of promoting mutual cooperation between both shores of the Mediterranean and to bring a better understanding of Arab-Islamic culture to Italian society.
Wejdane Majeri, the president of Pontes, and representatives of other Tunisian and Italian associations petitioned Italian authorities to authorize an exchange with the Tunisian Ministry of Interior, consisting of the fingerprints of young Tunisians who were reported missing between Tunisia and Italy. On December 17th, 2011, protests were organized in the cities of Parma and Milan (Italy) as an expression of solidarity with the families of missing Tunisians, who are unable to travel to Italy to search for their family members.
On December 18th, 2011, families of missing Tunisians gathered in Place des Droits de L’Homme, in Tunis, to protest against Tunisian interim government’s silence regarding those Tunisians who went missing during their illegal journey across the Mediterranean. Approximately 50 families demanded that Tunisian authorities take charge the cases of missing Tunisians.
The president of Pontes was also present at the protest. “Tunisian government must review agreements the Ben Ali regime signed with the European Union regarding illegal immigration and discuss the terms again with Italian government”, Majeri stressed. She went on to denounce Tunisian authorities in Italy for their absence in dealing with the cases of illegal immigrants in Tunisia and their incompetence – particularly at the consular level – in Palermo, Sicily.
“Some Tunisian high officials belong to the old regime, and we have not seen any change since the revolution. We are waiting for the new interim government, led by Ennahdha, to act now”, she added.
“Dumping money into stopping illegal immigration between Africa and Europe is no longer a solution. EU governments gave million of Euros to the Gaddafi and Ben Ali regime, and it did not help stop people from taking the risk to cross the Mediterranean to Europe”, Majeri complained.
Pontes has been active in the integration of newly arrived Tunisians to Italian society. The organization has made an effort to help undocumented Tunisians to find jobs, navigate the Italian legal system, and learn to speak Italian. The association has also campaigned during, and after, the Tunisian Revolution for the support of young Tunisians who left Tunisia to the island of Lampedusa.
Tunisian civil societies in Tunisia and abroad continue to apply pressure on the Tunisian and Italian governments to take a decisive stance in resolving the issue of Tunisian illegal immigrants.
Written in Collaboration with Imene Ben Ameur