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Why Tunisians are now risking their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe

Fishermen in Zarzis, Tunisia, sometimes find bodies of people who have tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea to find better opportunities abroad.
Claire Harbage
/
NPR
Fishermen in Zarzis, Tunisia, sometimes find bodies of people who have tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea to find better opportunities abroad.

Updated December 15, 2022 at 4:35 PM ET

Overlooking the harbor in Zarzis in southeast Tunisia, fisherman-turned-café owner Lotfi Bin Mohammed Issa serves up small cups of coffee. The fishermen at his café look out over the Mediterranean where their colleagues prep wooden boats with traps and nets for the next day's work.

"The sea always has something to offer," he said. His face is lined from decades in the sun, and his voice gravelly from years of smoking. "You can always get fish from the sea. It's God who gives us these blessings."

For 41 years the Mediterranean has provided. It's how Bin Mohammed Issa educated his two older daughters and how he supported his teenage son.

But in the last decade, the sea has shown him things he wishes he could forget.

"We see bodies when we go fishing," he said. "It's always the fishermen who are on the frontlines."

Lotfi Bin Mohammed Issa sits with fishermen outside his cafe overlooking the harbor in Zarzis.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Lotfi Bin Mohammed Issa sits with fishermen outside his cafe overlooking the harbor in Zarzis.

The fishermen are witnesses to the difficult choices that people make to leave their homelands and risk the journey across the sea on makeshift boats to Europe to escape famine, violence, repression or economic crisis.

"Every time I find a body I can't sleep for a week," he said. "We're supposed to fish for fish, not bodies."

On one of his fishing trips in 2013 he came across a sinking boat with 280 people from Sub-Saharan Africa on board. He pulled them onto his fishing boat and took them to Zarzis. A woman gave birth on the journey to the shore.

At the time, it was mostly people from other parts of Africa attempting to reach Europe — and sometimes dying in the process.

A fisherman adjusts netting to prep his boat for fishing. In the harbor, fishermen are often witnesses to the difficult choices that people make to leave their homelands and risk the journey across the sea on makeshift boats to Europe.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
A fisherman adjusts netting to prep his boat for fishing. In the harbor, fishermen are often witnesses to the difficult choices that people make to leave their homelands and risk the journey across the sea on makeshift boats to Europe.

So many people drown off the coast of Zarzis that there are two cemeteries for unidentified non-Tunisians found at sea. One is named the Garden of Africa, created by an Algerian artist to give the unnamed a beautiful place to rest. Ornate tiles create the walkways between grave and olive trees grow on the perimeter.

But now Bin Mohammed Issa is seeing more and more Tunisians— men, women and children— making the decision to go.

As of October 2022, more than 45,000 Tunisians have tried to cross to Italy, some successfully, according to the Tunisian Forum for Social and Economic Rights. The International Organization for Migration has also tracked a sharp increase in the number of Tunisians making the journey since 2020. Increasingly, it's families and children boarding these boats including children traveling alone. This year at least 150 Tunisians have drowned off the coast.

What's driving them is years of post-revolution political paralysis and infighting that has failed to reform an economic system built on cronyism and systemic corruption. Add to that the pandemic and Russia's war in Ukraine and people are facing food shortages, soaring energy prices, acute inflation and growing unemployment. Tunisia's economy is on the brink of collapse if the country doesn't get an infusion of cash through an IMF loan. To get it, the state has to make cutbacks that will be painful and unpopular.

A cemetery in Zarzis called The Garden of Africa holds unidentified bodies of people who lost their lives at sea.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
A cemetery in Zarzis called The Garden of Africa holds unidentified bodies of people who lost their lives at sea.

Meanwhile, nearly 12 years after a revolution that overthrew a dictator, there's widespread concern, that the budding democracy that was being built here is at risk under the current President Kais Saied as he consolidates power and arrests political opponents.

Saied rejects the criticism and this week he blamed unnamed "foreign forces" for shoring up opposition to his rule in an interview with the Washington Post. He's in Washington DC for the Africa Summit. The steps he's taken, he claims, are to "correct the course of the revolution."

Bin Mohammed Issa is worried about a future in Tunisia without a generation of its youth.

"Young people now, they cannot afford anything even if they work their whole life," he said.

He remembers when Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in 2010. The fruit vendor doused himself in gasoline after a police officer slapped him and took his street cart and produce. His act of desperation was for dignity and a better life. It made the rest of Tunisia erupt in protest and force a decades-long dictator out of power.

"We had hopes, big hopes. Then those people, those politicians came." Bin Mohammed Issa said. "We thought they were going to create a better situation for us. But it was a cake. They split it between them and they left us the leftovers. That wasn't enough for us to stop feeling hungry."

If Bouazizi were alive today, he said, the fruit vendor would set himself on fire again.

Zarzis, a town in Southeast Tunisia, overlooks the Mediterranean.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Zarzis, a town in Southeast Tunisia, overlooks the Mediterranean.

The desire to leave Tunisia, particularly among the young, is spreading. So many of Bin Mohammed Issa teenage son's friends have left on rickety boats headed to Europe that the boy can barely find anyone to hang out with in their neighborhood.

"When young people have a dream, they are in a trance. They don't think about death anymore," He said. "All they think about is how to make money, how to make their families happy, how to stop their mothers from working in houses and their fathers from working in construction."

Now his youngest child begs his father to help him make the same journey.

"My son said to me 'either I go illegally or get me a visa to leave the country,'" Bin Mohammed Issa said. "I wish my son would stay with me. I want him to help me when I become old the way I help my 105-year-old mother now. But I don't see a future for him."

Fishermen in Zarzis load their boat with traps to prep for the next day.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Fishermen in Zarzis load their boat with traps to prep for the next day.

So, Bin Mohammed Issa may grow old without his children.

His daughter already left for work in Switzerland after sitting in Tunisia unemployed for years even with her college diploma.

Nowadays, so many young people in Zarzis have left that the city feels emptier. In the city center where people shop and dine, a group of 21-year-olds are sipping coffee and scrolling through their phones at a café.

Of the four friends, only Muntaser Kardami still lives in Tunisia. The others have all migrated to France and are home for a visit. He wants to leave like his friends have. "There are no jobs. There's nothing," he said, "we have no solution."

Democracy, in his opinion, has failed him.

He has lost count of the number of people he grew up with that have left. Those who got visas went on a plane. The rest have gone on boats across the Mediterranean, or by land, first to Serbia, and then smuggled across the borders to Switzerland, and then France. He wants to leave too.

"But no risk," Kardami said. "I want to fly Emirates or maybe Qatar Airways."

On the wall next to the café graffiti reads "the country of death." It's a reference to a makeshift boat that sank in September with 18 Tunisians from Zarzis on board.

Most were young men but also young women and a baby girl. Her name was Sajida.

Weeks later, fishermen began recovering bodies. One was identified only by the blue shorts he wore.

So far the remains of seven of the 18 were returned to their families, the rest are still missing. Family members fear their loved ones were buried in the cemeteries for unidentified non-Tunisians without their knowledge. They have no one to bury.

Wafaa Jertili points out her missing brother on a poster on taped to the hood of a car.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Wafaa Jertili points out her missing brother on a poster on taped to the hood of a car.

This is why Mounira Kerimi has sat across from the governor's office every day for some three months. She wants the local government to provide her with answers about her 18-year-old son Rayan Awdi and her two nephews who were on that boat.

Other mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers of the missing join her on blue plastic chairs in the shade of a blooming tree.

"If they're dead, they can just bring them and drop them here in the street," she said. "And then we know that they are dead."

Mounira Kerimi shows a photo of her son who is still missing, as her daughter looks on.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Mounira Kerimi shows a photo of her son who is still missing, as her daughter looks on.

The lack of certainty deepens the grief of losing her only son.

The night before Awdi left, he showered, sat with his mother, and shared that he was leaving. He claimed that he wanted to continue his studies in another region of Tunisia. She had a feeling he was lying. So she asked her niece where her son really went. That's when she found out the truth. Awdi had snuck off with his cousins to get on a boat headed to Italy.

"My son wanted me to stop cleaning homes," Kerimi said. "I remember once I was going home after work and Rayan was crying because he saw how tired his mother was. All my son wanted when he left was to improve his mother's situation. But what happened is what happened."

She stops for a moment, losing herself in tears. Around her, other women nod. The food shortages are so acute that finding a bottle of milk is impossible these days.

"Imagine, the children of Zarzis don't have a sip of milk to drink," Kerimi said.

Wafaa Jertili sits nearby. Her brother Mohammed was also on that boat. He was 27, just ten months older than her.

"This country is killing its children. Imagine my brother is dead and I cannot find him. Do you think this is normal?" she said.

Wafaa Jertili's brother tried leaving Tunisia to find work but was also aboard the boat that sank in September.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Wafaa Jertili's brother tried leaving Tunisia to find work but was also aboard the boat that sank in September.

She pulls out her phone and plays a video. Her brother is laughing as he rides a four-wheeler through their city.

"He was a normal guy, living a normal life. The thing he wanted most to do was make my mother happy," Jertili said. It's why he left. To offer himself and his family a better future.

On December 17, there's another parliamentary election in Tunisia. Some are boycotting because they worry it will cement the current president's power grab. But Jertili's plan not to vote isn't a political statement. She's just lost faith in a political system that she said has given her nothing—not even her brother's body.

"I don't like this country anymore," she said. "Those who are in power are only thinking about their own children, how to give them the best education and how to send them abroad. They're not thinking about our children."

The day she can finally bury her brother, she said, she will leave Tunisia.

David West Jr. and Taylor Haney produced. Olivia Hampton and Larry Kaplow edited the audio version of this story and Majd Al-Waheidi edited the digital version. contributed to this story

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A sign in downtown Zarzis refers to the boat that sank in September with 18 Tunisians on board.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
A sign in downtown Zarzis refers to the boat that sank in September with 18 Tunisians on board.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Shelby Ben Brahim