by Xinhua writers Xu Supei, Ayten Laamar, Huang Ling
TUNIS, Sept. 20 (Xinhua) -- This year saw a sharp increase in the number of illegal immigrants from Tunisia trying the dangerous sea passage to Europe, reaching a level not seen since the so-called "Arab Spring" in 2011, the latest data shows.
More Tunisians are taking the risk of traveling across the Mediterranean, one of the world's most dangerous routes for immigrants, as a result of a confluence of economic and social reasons, including high unemployment, financial difficulties, and success tales of migrants.
ANOTHER PEAK AFTER 2011
At a parking lot near the port of La Goulette in northern Tunisia, 21-year-old Tunisian Anis is washing cars to save money for a seat on the boat across the Mediterranean.
"Three months ago, I arrived here from Kairouan Province to prepare for the sea crossing," Anis told Xinhua, adding that La Goulette is among the "most popular departure locations in Tunisia" for would-be immigrants.
Irregular immigration to Europe from or through Tunisia is not a new phenomenon. Since the 1990s, the North African country has emerged as a key transit hub for immigrants from Africa and the Middle East due to its long coastline and proximity to Europe.
At least 33,761 immigrants have reportedly died or gone missing between 2000 and 2017 while seeking to cross the Mediterranean, making the Mediterranean route one of the deadliest journeys for immigrants, according to a UN report.
Despite the risk, Anis said a growing number of Tunisians choose to leave the country "for a better life" by making the sea passage.
"I want to start a new life somewhere else," the young man who holds a plumbing license said seriously.
Tunisia has been mired in a prolonged economic crisis. Inflation rose for 11 consecutive months to 8.6 percent in August, the highest record since September 1991. The unemployment rate stands at around 18.5 percent, while among young people it is over 40 percent, official statistics show.
The growth in the number of illegal immigrants gained pace this year after the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated a trend that existed before its outbreak in the country in early 2020.
The number of immigrants intercepted in the first half of 2022 is "well above the levels recorded during the same period in 2021," according to a report published by the Geneva-based Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC).
On Sept. 13, the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES) reported that more than 13,000 Tunisian illegal immigrants have landed in Italy since January 2022.
According to the FTDES, Tunisia's rise in immigration since 2020 marks "a new peak" after what happened around the so-called "Arab Spring", when a collapse in Tunisian border control resulted in massive numbers of Tunisians leaving the country.
FROM YOUNG MEN TO ENTIRE FAMILIES
The 38-year-old Tunisian Karim is waiting in La Goulette for his second chance to leave for Europe. One year ago, he was arrested by the Tunisian Maritime Guard off the coast near the town of Sidi Mansour in Sfax Province, when sailing with a group of illegal immigrants toward Italy.
"I paid the human smuggler 4,000 Tunisian dinars (1,251 U.S. dollars) in my first attempt. Now I have to save money for the second try," Karim sighed.
According to Karim, who has a degree in history and used to work in a call center in the capital Tunis, the cost of traveling to Europe through the Mediterranean route ranges between 2,500 dinars to 4,000 dinars.
Young men between the ages of 18 and 35 are the main force of irregular immigration. However, GI-TOC data shows that in the past two years, a growing number of men aged over 35, women, children, and even entire families are joining the immigrants willing to take risks.
In 2021, the Italian authorities intercepted nearly 10,000 children who arrived illegally, including 2,700 Tunisian nationals, International Organization for Migration's Chief of Mission for Tunisia Azzouz Samri said on Monday.
LESS RELIANCE ON HUMAN TRAFFICKERS
In recent years, more young Tunisians are trying to cross the Mediterranean on their own instead of relying on human traffickers.
"The new method of illegal immigration is known as 'comita,' which means a group of people pool their funds to purchase vessels, motors, and other equipment before departure," Tunisian cook Mohamed who lived in La Goulette told Xinhua.
According to Mohamed, "comita" is becoming more and more popular, because many human smugglers are cheaters and they overcharge.
Illegal immigration in the country is common, and discussion of illegal immigration is no longer a taboo, said Mohamed, adding some Tunisians even share their illegal immigration plans openly.
Stories of those who successfully immigrated to Europe have also fueled the hope of a better life elsewhere.
Nadia, a Tunisian university professor told Xinhua that she can see live videos of people crossing the sea to Italy almost every day via social media.
"I have no sympathy for those adults who get into trouble in the sea, but I feel very sorry for children," Nadia said, adding she is against illegal immigration via the Mediterranean Sea, especially by boat.
"Life can be better for some people after immigration, of course, but it is not for many more," she added. ■