SFAX — Plastic bags litter the fields that separate the highway from the Mediterranean Sea. Tunisian fishermen sail their boats in the Gulf of Gabes, between the cities of Sfax and Zarzis — and just 120 kilometers from the Italian island of Lampedusa. Indeed, recently the fishermen's haul has begun to include migrants picked up from these shores, with 136 intercepted by the Italian government in one recent night.
That boat had almost reached the port of Porto Empedocle in southern Sicily, but the migrants were waiting in the dark to safely disembark and evade authorities. Their reasons became clear once they were processed at the local refugee hotspot, where all the migrants were identified as Tunisian nationals from the Sfax area. Italy and Tunisia have a repatriation agreement, and any Tunisian caught entering the country illegally is subject to deportation. Thirty of those 136 have already been given notice to leave the country within six days, but many of them are intent on continuing northward toward France.
Across the Mediterranean in Sfax, ferries lay idle waiting to board passengers for the short trip to the island of Kerkennah. Home to the founder of Tunisia's largest and foremost trade union, Kerkennah has seen protests against the high unemployment rate. Even fishermen are having difficulty making a living, and many locals yearn to flee to nearby Italy.
"Would you stay here doing nothing all day?" asks Neji, 23. "The Tunisian dinar is worthless, this country has no future. That's why we want to leave."
I still have the scars.
Migrants first board the ferry from Sfax to Kerkennah, where they pay traffickers to take them to Italy in small boats undetectable by radar. While the 1,500 Tunisians arrivals in Italy in 2017 are a far cry from the tens of thousands that arrived from Libya, their efforts to remain undetected make it difficult to give a definitive number. "We've registered a slight increase in departures from Tunisia compared to last year," says Raimondo De Cardona, the Italian Ambassador in Tunis.
According to Mounib Baccari, a Tunisian activist at Watch the Med, an NGO that combats migrant trafficking, the number of arrivals is continuously increasing and should be a source of concern for authorities. "Every day we hear reports of small boats blocked by the coast guard," he says. "Those who are leaving are young men who are poor or desperate, and many of them try the journey several times because they're convinced it's their only chance for a better future."
With 300,000 inhabitants, Sfax is the main city of southern Tunisia. Security roadblocks check cars and trucks traveling on the highway to the Libyan border, where seven Islamic State members were arrested last month. The area is becoming steadily more religiously conservative, as exemplified by the recent case of a female teacher who was assaulted by parents after reports that she shut her classroom's windows during the call to prayer.
We at least want to have their bodies back.
"The Arab Spring didn't change my life," says a young man waiting for the ferry. "I'm a mechanic when I can find work, but the most money I've made in a month is 100 euros."
The mothers of would-be migrants who've died seeking to cross the Mediterranean now protest in the city's streets. Yet more and more young Tunisians continue to leave for Italy — and often, it isn't their first attempt.
"I no longer want to cook my son's favorite dish, I can't stand his absence," says Souad Rawahi. "The government must give us an answer, we at least want to have their bodies back, but instead they beat us when we protest. I still have the scars."