By Javier Martín
Tunis, Dec 15 (efe-epa).- “Last night I slept in Lampedusa” has for five years been a cry of triumph for thousands of sub-Saharan Africans who overcame long journeys through the desert and violence in a bid to regain some of the dignity that poverty and oppression withhold.
It is a fleeting moment of happiness that thousands in North Africa still dream of nowadays, harassed by the hardships of the failed so-called Arab Spring revolutions a decade ago.
Mabrouka Houachi, 37, his wife and five children, the oldest of which was left paraplegic after being run over, were among the roughly 23,000 Tunisians who made the perilous dash for the exit via the choppy waters of the Mediterranean.
Scrap workers from a low-income neighborhood in Sfax, the industrial capital of Tunisia, the precarious vessel in which they traveled with a handful of young people, also unemployed, was intercepted by the coast guard.
“I did not commit any crime going to Italy illegally so that I could get treatment for my son. What I ask God is to heal him, that is my right. This is what I want to say to everyone, I only want to go to look after my son,” Houachi tells Efe.
When the coast guard stopped the migrant vessel, Houachi doused himself in gasoline and threatened to set himself alight.
The mother tells Efe: “I don’t have money. If I did, why would I go to Europe? I would stay here and look after him in Tunisia.”
She pleads for her husband to be released.
“Extremists and murderers are allowed to be free, but not my husband for fleeing illegally.”
“I’m ready for another journey, even if it means we’re eaten by the fish. I will pray, we will live or we will die.”
A FAILED REVOLUTION
According to the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), more than 11,500 Tunisians cross the Mediterranean Sea in 2020. A similar number — 11,900 — were intercepted during their attempt, around 96% of whom were men and 10% minors.
The figure this year is four times higher than in 2019. In October alone, the number of Tunisian migrants who managed to make it to Italy was 1,328, a 180% increase compared to the same month in 2019.
The surge prompted Rome to warn Tunisia that it would suspend economic aid if authorities did not get a handle on the number of migrants leaving the country.
The warning was dire for a country in the depths of an acute economic crisis and social unrest similar to that witnessed in 2011 before the uprising that deposed dictator Zinedin el Abedin Ben Ali, the starting gun for the so-called Arab Spring.
Although the uprising was a success from a political point of view, corruption, human rights restrictions and a lack of opportunity, factors that stoked popular anger, persist.
Independent studies suggest the unemployment rate hovers at around 35% and is particularly acute among young people and recent graduates, who, without prospects in life and facing a legal migration path riddled with pitfalls, often turn to desperate routes by sea.
Mounira ben Charga, the head of a platform for families of missing migrants in Tunisia, says: “Our young people venture out but if it doesn’t work for them they come back. But Europe only accepts executives and leaders, not young people looking for a job.
“The number has exceeded 1,800 and continues to rise due to the circumstances and economic problems. They travel of all ages, young and old.