Illegal Migration: A view from Tunisia by Hassen Trabelsi

Illegal Migration: A view from Tunisia by Hassen Trabelsi*

Following the protests that ignited the Tunisian Revolution in 2011 over high unemployment, corruption, and widespread poverty; Tunisians managed to topple the oppressive regime led by Ben Ali. Since then, Tunisians have elected national governments and participated in legislative and presidential elections, and politicians have implemented a new democratic system that has become unique model in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. But what was the impact of all of these changes on Tunisians and their aspirations for a better future in the 10 years that followed?

With an unprecedented wave of new Tunisian migrants in the aftermath of the revolution (in addition to sub-Saharan migrants and others fleeing the war in Libya at that time), the issue of illegal migration has gained national attention and has become one of the top priorities of the newly established democratically-elected government . In fact, the Tunisian Ministry of Social Affairs has created a new illegal migration department, as well as a Secretary of State position in charge of Illegal Migration and Tunisians Abroad. Despite the creation of this new department, the number of Tunisian illegal migrants has continued to rise drastically, and politicians have not been able to find a remedy to alleviate this surging phenomenon.

What urges Tunisians to leave their families behind and face death in their trip to Europe?  Economic and political hardships are key drivers behind the migration. However, we need to understand what really motivates Tunisians to migrate illegally in such dangerous trips. To quote Larbi Sadiki writing for Brookings Institution, “This trip is known as the “harqa” which is an exit strategy of those experiencing intense marginalization at home, seeking a better future abroad.”

To understand the upsurge in illegal migration rates from the revolution to now, I talked to some Tunisians, mostly young people, who have been through this experience. Their perspectives reveal what really urges them to take this leap into the unknown.

Corruption of Tunisian politicians

Perceptions of corruption are a key driver of Tunisians’ disillusionment. Successive elected governments have promised Tunisians a better future. However, when those politicians took power, they abused their powers and benefited from the country’s wealth for their own ends – for example, by creating lucrative personal projects that deprived Tunisians from a fair distribution of wealth and resources.

This corruption impacts the lives of ordinary Tunisians. For instance, those who live in the marginalized interior areas of the country, where they face high unemployment and are deprived of investment, development projects, and essential living/leisure amenities, cannot even conduct their own agricultural projects on the fertile lands around their city. This is because the majority of these areas are owned by the government, and these fertile lands are usually rented to international companies that politicians choose.

“When I see the green fields and the gigantic dam in my home village, I say how beautiful my country is. But when I remember that there is no water supply in my entire village and that we never tasted that wheat we see growing, I say we do not belong to this country!” said Mourad from Jendouba, who migrated illegally to Italy, and was then deported back to Tunisia.

Harsh social and economic conditions

Hopeless poor Tunisians who usually drop out of school at an early age because of their families’ limited financial conditions cannot change their situation easily; they have to face unemployment. While some of them resort to temporal solutions like working in cafés as waiters or in construction sites as daily workers, others consider more radical change like leaving the country by whatever means for a better future.

I spoke to Mustapha, a 27-year-old from Sfax who participated in a “harqa” trip towards Italy, but was then deported back to Tunisia in 2018:

“We are facing extremely harsh economic conditions, with no opportunity to live a proper decent life. The Tunisian government neglected us and could neither offer employment opportunities, nor help us finance our own projects. We felt we should seek another alternative rather than staying here to starve.”

Similarly, Mohamed a 25 year-old from Cité Habib, Sfax, explained his reasons saying:

“The wage of educated Tunisians is very low; It barely reaches 350 Dinars (125 USD) or 400 Dinars (143 USD). I worked as a waiter for 650 Dinars (232 USD), so this encouraged me to drop from school. In Europe, I can earn easily 2000 Dinars (716 USD) which would allow me to marry and secure a decent life for me, my wife, and my children, which is not the case for other educated Tunisians who decide to remain in Tunisia.”

Thus, it seems that the poor economic and social conditions that Tunisians are facing are a very important factor in their decision.

The role of family

Having a family member who is working abroad is a source of pride among Tunisian families. Parents who see their child facing unemployment feel “ashamed” and put them under psychological stress, comparing them to their peers who managed to change their situation.

Indeed, the harsh economic situation of some Tunisian families urges many to migrate illegally. For many educated Tunisians, spending several years in university is a sacrifice made to one day earn a salary and subsidize their families. However, this remains a far-fetched dream for the majority.

Let us take the example of Tarek, 42 years old, who went to Italy 5 years ago after being unemployed in Tunisia for 4 years. “Your dreams will never come true in Tunisia!” He says with a deep sigh: “I worked every summer while being a student in order to buy clothes and all my books. I cannot tell my parents to give me money for my studies while my brothers are starving. I decided to drop out of school several times, but my parents refused. I was hoping to find a job after several years of study. But all I got was fake promises.”

For younger Tunisians, the temptation to see a new world grows as they see their relatives returning from Europe to their neighborhoods able to afford a better standard of living and to buy, for example, the car of their dreams. This is the sort of thing that, if they stayed in Tunisia, they would never be able to buy even if they worked for the remaining years of their lives.

Chedi, a 22-year-old, was impressed by his cousin when he returned from Europe after spending two years there. “My cousin Slim went to Germany after immigrating illegally to Italy. He worked in painting walls there, work we used to do together, but he managed to buy my dream car and secure a decent life. This was the main reason for me to jump into the sea.”

Death En Route

The maritime route towards Europe is a risky journey. There are three main reasons for the increased number of boats sinking incidents. First, “harqa” organizers use rickety boats that are meant to just float and reach the northern shores of the Mediterranean with the lowest costs possible. Second, weather conditions are unpredictable, and the lack of protective equipment and safety measures has led to several catastrophes. Third, the boats are overcrowded with poor migrants who are forced to accept these harsh conditions, without prior psychological preparation or even receiving swimming or first aid trainings.


Harsh social and economic conditions, coupled with the failure of the successive corrupted politicians to establish a successful unbiased development approach in different Tunisian cities since the 2011 revolution, have created a lucrative business known as illegal migration. Whether educated or not, some Tunisians are forced to look for a better future for themselves and their families outside of their homeland. The Tunisian government should thus intervene and limit this flow of hopeless people leaping into the sea to face death. Tunisian politicians should also think of adopting a more liberal economy which encourages initiatives and suppresses large companies’ monopolies. One possible suggestion is to provide more funding opportunities for Tunisians who want to create their own projects in any domain and to offer professional trainings and guidance to them. Another suggestion is to give residents of agricultural cities an opportunity to rent a portion of government lands at preferential prices. Remedies such as these could give Tunisians a glimmer of hope to stay in their country.

*About the author

Hassen Trabelsi is a Tunisian researcher and an English-Arabic translator, with a Master’s degree in Applied and Theoretical Linguistics from the University of Arts and Human Sciences in Sfax. He has conducted several projects assessing Tunisians’ aspirations, expectations, and perspectives about the challenges facing post-revolutionary Tunisia.

Further references (and pictures)

·      IFM Radio, Launching a new national opinion polls about Migration and Migrants in Tunisia

·      Institute for War & Peace Reporting, Illegal Migrants Risk All to Escape Tunisia

·      The Arab Weekly, Italy conveys to Tunisia concern about spike in illegal migration

·      Marsad, Tunisian organization: Fighting terrorism is a necessity but does not justify violation of migrants’ rights

·      Global Detention Project, Tunisia

·      Nawaat, Tunisia: Illegal migration and brain-drain, two sides of the same coin

·      Brookings, Tunisia’s migration to the north

·      Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Tunisia’s Corruption Contagion: A Transition at Risk