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Rise in Tunisian migrants crossing to Europe

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Nariman El-Mofty/Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.


Once, it was just the jobless young men who set off from Tunisia's rocky northern beaches for Sicily, usually defying their parents in hopes of a better future.

Now Tunisian families, even those with work or seemingly good prospects, are following that path across 130 kilometres of open water.

Nearly 10,000 since the beginning of the year and far more than have left in recent memory.

The stretch of the Mediterranean can be dangerous, the chance of getting asylum in Europe is near zero, and a long quarantine in a ferry anchored offshore will be followed by expulsion if they're caught.

But many who leave from the Bizerte coastline think the potential reward far outweighs the risk.

"My son is a month and a half old, and if I get a chance to emigrate immediately, I will go to make a better life," said Tarek Aloui, a 27-year-old who has tried 10 times to reach Italy since 2014.

He has succeeded only once, last March at the height of the coronavirus lockdown. But even then, he was expelled almost immediately back home, where he was jailed for six months.

Aloui is however undeterred.

"All Tunisian men, women and even children want to leave this way," he added.

"We have seen them several times in the camera surveillance in the port, the port police and the owners check the boats every evening, several times boats with engines are stolen. The owners have to ask for loans to buy these small boats, and then in the morning they discover the boats are not there anymore, it is a problem of the State.", says fisherman Mohamed Taweb.

While Tunisians are by far the biggest group of migrants in 2020, over 23,517 migrants in Italy this year are a fraction of the nearly 120,000 people rescued at sea and brought to the country in 2017, or the more than 181,000 who arrived in the peak year, 2016.

This year's arrivals however do represent the most in the past three years: By this time in 2018 there were 21,024 overall and 2019 there were 7,203.

But the Tunisian percentages of the total are significantly more this year than in recent years. This year, the 9,824 Tunisians who have arrived so far account for 42% of the total.

Last year, while still topping the list of the most of any nationality, they were 23% of the total and the year before that 22%.

In 2017, though, Tunisians only accounted for 5% with Nigerian migrants making up the most.

Romdhane Ben Amor, spokesman for the Tunisian Economic and Social Rights Forum, said this level of emigration haven't been seen since the Arab Spring uprising on 2011 started in Tunisia.

**There is a change in the emigration. **

It is no longer restricted to those who drop out of school, the unemployed and the uneducated.

"Among those leaving, today we see holders of university degrees and even people with a job. Families that previously opposed the emigration of their children, now participate indirectly through non-objection (to the emigration) and, sometimes, contribute or finance the emigration of their children" he said.

According to Ben Amor, between 150 and 200 families have left clandestinely, avoiding the Tunisian coast guard, despite ramped up surveillance paid for by Italy and other European Union countries.

Their arrivals have strained the ability of Italy's southern regions to take them in amid the coronavirus, given Italy's quarantine requirements for anyone arriving from outside the EU.

Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese has travelled to Tunis twice since July to negotiate with the new government on the need to stem the flow, including with offers of assistance from Italy to better patrol the coasts.

She blamed the increase in Tunisian arrivals on the country's socio-economic problems that have been exacerbated by COVID-19 and has offered Italian assistance to address them.

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