Sfax (Tunisia) (AFP)
Aminata Traoure survived a shipwreck in which she lost her granddaughter, sister and niece but is determined to resume the illegal crossing to Europe.
For the 28-year-old Côte d’Ivoire, the perilous crossing of the Mediterranean from North African Tunisia is its only way to build a better future.
“Leaving Tunisia might ease my pain,” Traoure said.
Her attempt ended in tragedy on March 9, when the rickety boat she had boarded capsized with another in the Mediterranean, and he was thrown into the waters along with about 200 other people.
Among the 39 drowned was Sangare Fatim, his 15-month-old daughter.
Traoure has said she would like to return home to Ivory Coast, 3,000 kilometers southwest across the sands of the Sahara, but she cannot afford it.
The ticket price – plus a fine for illegal three-year stay in Tunisia – costs more than a crossing to Europe.
“I’ll have to try again,” she said.
The number of people risking the dangerous sea crossing from Tunisia is increasing and for the first time the majority on the boats are not Tunisians.
In the first quarter of 2021, more than half of people arriving in Italy from Tunisia were mostly citizens of countries in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the Tunisian rights organization FTDES.
So far this year, at least 453 migrants have died trying to reach Europe from North Africa, according to the International Organization for Migration.
About a hundred of them had left from the Tunisian port of Sfax.
– ‘The hopes of their families’ –
“Despite the shipwrecks, despite our grieving families, we are always ready to risk our lives,” said Prista Kone, 28, also from Côte d’Ivoire.
She attempted the crossing last year, but her boat was intercepted by Tunisian authorities.
Kone arrived in Tunisia in 2014 with a degree in business management and plans to continue her education.
But without money, she found work as a cleaning lady, she says. She also discovered “the extent of racism” in Tunisia.
“My boss asked me not to touch her children because I’m black! Kone said. “When something was missing from the house, she accused me of stealing it.”
In the streets “people called me ‘monkey” and threw stones at me, “she added.
It is a common story among his compatriots, crammed into a small room in a working-class district of Sfax.
“If these people survived a shipwreck at noon, they would be ready to participate in another crossing at 1 pm,” said Oumar Coulibaly, head of the association of Ivorians in Sfax.
“For them, it’s Europe or death! “
Coulibaly estimates that there are around 20,000 people from sub-Saharan countries in Tunisia, nearly two-thirds of them from Côte d’Ivoire.
“They represent the hopes of their families,” Coulibaly said. “Some came to continue their studies, to work, others were promised huge salaries, but… they were lied to.”
Without a work permit, many work illegally and are severely underpaid, while regularly being abused by the police or citizens.
– Summer is coming? –
FTDES President Alaa Talbi said migrants who came to work in Tunisia want to leave, because “neither the legal framework nor the cultural framework favors integration”.
The agreements between Italy and Libya – another key starting point for Europe – also have “complicated departures”, with more migrants trying to leave Tunisia, he said.
The Tunisian economy has gone from crisis to crisis since the 2011 revolution in the country, most recently due to the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown measures.
With calmer seas in the summer months looming, many expect more Tunisians to risk the crossing as well.
According to Catholic aid agency Caritas, smugglers lure migrants with stories that housing and jobs are now easy to find in Europe, claiming the virus has decimated the population.
Sozo Ange, a 22-year-old Ivorian mother, has been in Tunisia for two years.
For her, staying means – at best – the life of a housekeeper, earning enough to share a small room with several others and surviving on “stale turkey soup,” she said.
“I’m going to leave here with my family, it’s make or break,” she said, breastfeeding her son.
Her husband, Inao Steave, 34, works in a bakery – where he works harder than his Tunisian colleagues.
“I can’t let my child grow up like this,” he says. “We are aware of the risks, but we have no choice – we will die or live in Europe! “
© 2021 AFP