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63 Tunisian Youth, Migrant Refugees on Italy’s Island of Lampadusa, Oppose Forced Repatriation, Go On Hunger Strike

November 4, 2017

another boatload of clandestine Tunisian migrants arrive At Lampedusa Harbor

Opposing Forced Repatriation

They face forced deportation back to Tunisia from whence they fled and have announced a hunger strike in protest of being forcibly repatriated. A group of 63 Tunisian youth, many coming from the depressed mining community of Redeyef, near Gafsa, fled the country by boat across the Mediterranean to Lampedusa. In response to the Italian government’s plan to ship them back to Tunisia, the youth have started a hunger strike. According to the last news I could find, their hunger strike had lasted at least five days. In a statement in French, they describe their plight. (The English translation is my informal translation).

Nous sommes un groupe de jeunes venant du Rdeyef (sud-ouest de la Tunisie, là où a émergé le soulèvement du bassin minier en 2008) et d’autres régions de la Tunisie. Devant les défaillances économiques et sociales des politiques de notre pays, l’abandon de l’Etat de ses obligations et l’échec politique à l’échelle locale et internationale, nous avons dû abandonner notre rêve de 2008 d’un Etat démocratique qui garantit la liberté, la dignité et la justice sociale. Et malgré qu’on soit fière de notre pays et de son peuple, nous devions surmonter le danger de la migration non réglementaire direction le nord-ouest de la mer Méditerranée, cette route devenue dangereuse à cause des politiques migratoires européennes qui ferment les frontières à nos rêves et à nos ambitions de tenter une nouvelle expérience d’une manière réglementaire.

(We are a group of young Tunisians, from Redeyef (in Tunisia’s southwest, there where there was an uprising of miners in 2008). Given the political failures of our country’s political leadership to solve the economic and social crisis of our country, along with the state’s neglect to fulfill its obligations, along with the political failures both on the domestic and international level (to fulfill the Tunisian promise of modernism) we have had to abandon our dream of 2008 to build a democratic state, one that guarantees liberty, dignity and social justice. In spite of our pride in both our country and people, we risked the challenge of unauthorized migration across the Mediterranean to Italy; the journey has become especially dangerous as a result of European migratory policy that is closing its legal frontiers to our hopes and dreams.)

Lampedusa is an Italian island that lies about half way between the Tunisian coastal city of Mahdia, once a key urban center of the 10th-12th Century Fatimid Caliphate North African-based dynasty, and the island nation of Malta in the Mediterranean. From Malta it is a short hop and jump to the tip of Sicily. For Tunisians and others, fleeing the repression and economic chaos of Africa, sub-Saharan and northern, Lampedusa, a mere 87 miles “as the bird flies” from the Tunisian coast, is the shortest distance for refugees seeking asylum in Europe.

Memorial to immigrants the world over, those who made it, those who didn’t.

A part of a much larger wave…

Although many more refugees flee Africa from Libya, a fair share try their luck from Tunisia’s eastern coast hoping to make it to Lampedusa, Malta or Sicily and then north from there. Many of the refugees come from all over Africa, making the punishing, treacherous journey across the Sahara to the southern Mediterranean coastal regions. But many who embark from the Tunisian coast towards Lampedusa – and their dim hope of a new life – come from Tunisia itself. Numbers are hard to come by but according to one source, three years ago there were nearly 100,000 Tunisian “regular immigrants” in Italy.

No statistics are available for the “irregular immigrants” but it has to be in the tens of thousands, people, willing to risk their lives and those of loved one to leave a life void of hope and meaning. These migrants perhaps, don’t take Mohammed Bouzidi’s route – immolation or other forms of suicide – perhaps, but the risks of survival to Italy are great, and the likelihood that these refugees will ever make it to Germany, France and points north in Europe is growing dimmer and dimmer as more and more of them are returned to their countries of origin by a Europe that has experienced a wave of political and economic refugees – a flood – now more than thirty years in the making.

Here in North America, to reach the United States, migrants have to negotiate a wall, border patrol and the deserts of the Southwest. For those migrants trying to reach Europe from the Middle East and Africa, they have the daunting prospect of making it across the Mediterranean Sea, most in rickety, unseaworthy boats. One of the key transit points between North Africa and Europe (to Sicily) on such a journey is Lampedusa.

Lampedusa is a tiny island – only 7.8 miles² (20.2 km²) and a population of a shade under 6,000 yet from 1997 through 2016, that is over twenty years, some 400,000 migrants, “illegal immigrants,” have crossed from the Kerkennahs, Mahdia, Sfax and Sousse, Tunisia in rickety fishing boats and inflated rafts. Of them 15,000 have drowned. This according to the opening comments in the documentary, Fire At Sea by Italian director Gianfranco Rosi. These figures only concern refugees trying to get to Lampedusa; there are a number of other main refugee routes that increase the numbers manyfold.

One of the current myths – well not so much a myth as an exaggeration argues – that ISIS, – or like Islamic militant groups based in North Africa, especially Libya, but also Tunisia – has provoked the refugee crisis controlling the migration routes, ie, providing the boats, running the networks, making great profits as a result. No doubt there is truth to this. But ISIS did not create the refugee crisis currently besieging Europe. It has its roots instead in war, repression, economic inequality, development failures, the literal collapse of many African states and with it the socio-economic structures that make life livable. The very economic structure of African countries, as semi-peripheral or peripheral players in the global economy – and the failure of these countries to emerge from those roles – has been a fundamental contributing factor, often overlooked. Europe (and North America) have contributed greatly to freezing, and maintaining those roles throughout the African continent.

Tunisia is often extolled as a prosperous African country, one that has emerged from its colonial status and has enjoyed significant economic and social development. There is some truth to this – in spite of everything – Tunisia is a much more livable, prosperous place, than let’s say, Niger, Mali or Ethiopia. It’s economy is more developed, diversified, its social capital (educated population) much more developed. Yet, especially these past thirty years, Tunisia has limped along economically, little more, its achievements exaggerated, its economic crisis, if anything deepening. Despite the national uprising which called for a new socio-economic vision for the country, there is, as French scholar Alain Gresh puts it “no economic program.” (“Ce qui me frappe en Tunisie est que personne n’a un programme.”)

Tunisia-Sicily Migration Routes. This map is a bit dated, only going through 2011, but the routes remain the same. The 87 mile distance from the Tunisian coast to Lampedusa, mentioned above, is from Mahdia

The Redeyef Connection

Although it might not ring many bells among European and North American readers, the fact that the Tunisian hunger-strikers on Lampedusa hail from Redeyef resonates in Tunis. At the heart of the country’s phosphate mining region in the country’s southwest region, on the edge of the Sahara, Redeyef lies at the geographical center of social revolts in the country. A long poor region economically and socially neglected by the authorities in Tunis, it is from this region that the revolt began which led to the overthrow of the Ben Ali government in late 2010, early 2011. Actually, revolts emanating from this region go back to the 1860s and before, so the more recent events followed a well-worn pattern. Historically, the Tunisian government has been able to isolate the Redeyef’s social turmoil from spilling over into the more prosperous coastal cities of Bizerte, Tunis, Sousse, Sfax, Gabes. This was done through severe repression, essentially a military pacification program, isolating the region from the rest of the county.

But the Redeyef revolt, which actually began in 2008, two years prior to Ben Ali’s untidy departure did not fizzle out this time, nor did the repression dampen the anger of the people of the region, the overwhelming majority of whom – men, women, children – took to the streets in a peaceful, but militant movement. The repression was severe. This time though, the government was unable to control the situation. A wave of sympathy resulted in a protest demonstration in Tunis on January 10, 2011. The original socio-economic demands were transformed into a nationwide political call for revolutionary change. A million people converged on Tunis and the next day, Zine Ben Ali and his entourage were on their way out of the country.

Ben Ali and his rapacious family and friends were gone…and there were certainly some changes, an end to the stifling repression, new freedoms, but nearly seven years later, socio-economically not much has changed. The economy remains mired in stagnation. Infrastructural development of the country’s interior has simply not happened. The unemployment rate remains staggeringly high, especially for the country’s youth. Much touted IMF-World Bank structural adjustment programs might have kept the economy from total collapse, but little more. True enough, Tunis is now the regional center for AFRICOM, providing short-term security but at a price.

The 63 Redeyef youth stranded in Lampedusa demanding their right to freedom of movement and opposing repatriation are the most recent of a long tradition of a country whose youth have abandoned all hope of a future in their homeland. More Tunisians left to fight for ISIS and like groups – with the passive (and sometimes active) support of the then Ennahdha-led government, than from any other Middle Eastern and North African country – tens of thousands of youth. Others, seeking refuge from the socio-economic storm, have joined that great wave migrants leaving sub-Saharan and Northern Africa, as well as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, to hoping to find refuge in Europe – propelled out of their homelands by poverty, oppression and war – desperate, and willing to face the prospect of dying along the way.

May the Redeyef hunger strikers get the justice they deserve and demand.


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