Europe’s wealth a powerful lure for poor Tunisians

CITE ETTADAMUN, Tunisia — North African slum dweller Salema breaks down and sobs as she recalls the price her family paid for her sons’ dream of a better life.

“I received them home in a coffin,” the 60-year-old Tunisian woman whispers, recalling the deaths of her three sons when the boat smuggling them to Italy sank and they drowned.

“It’s true our standard of life is hard, but our days were happy when my sons were close to me,” she says, grieving in the ramshackle house she shares with her ageing husband.

Like countless other families in the region, Salema can trace her family’s tragedy to dreams of a decent life: The plan was that her sons’ work in Italy would pay for a new house in Tunis’ middle-class Bardo district and they could bid farewell to the Cite Ettadamun shanty town near the Tunisian capital.

Their story is repeated across Tunisia, Algeria, Libya and Morocco, where needy families, like their sub-Saharan African counterparts, are increasingly using illicit routes to send loved ones north across the Mediterranean to seek their fortune.

At a meeting of European and African governments on July 10 and 11 in Morocco to discuss migration, African countries are expected to ask for more development aid from Europe while accepting European Union demands for strong security cooperation on land and sea and in the air.

Morocco says a new strategy is needed to narrow the wealth gap that draws thousands of African job-seekers towards the Canary Islands and Spain in the western Mediterranean and towards Italy and Malta further east. Morocco plans to use the conference in Rabat to call for a joint approach.

In a study of illegal immigration, researchers Mehdi Mabrouk and Laura Feliu showed 2,500 Tunisians were arrested in 2005 trying to travel illegally to European countries, up from 1,400 in 2004 and just 700 in 1998.

Many suspect the real number of illegal migrants is higher, taking account of anecdotal evidence from families in the country of 10 million who report loved ones missing or dead.

The study, for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, showed that people-smugglers’ boats attracted large numbers of well-educated, middle-class Tunisians as well as slum dwellers.

According to government data, unemployment stands at 13.9 per cent, with graduates making up 60 per cent of the jobless.

Tunisia recently stepped up moves to curb the outflow, imposing fines and 20-year jail terms for offenders.

Every year the country sends more than 3,000 Tunisians to Italy to work in line with a cooperation agreement.

For those with no hope of legal access to Europe and with visas difficult to obtain, the possibility of a job in Europe remains an enticing prospect, even at the $1,000-$1,500 price for a smugglers’ boat ticket to Europe.

Salema said she never believed her sons were chasing a mirage. She expected them to repeat the exploits of her neighbour, who returned home after two years with a French wife, a nice car and ample savings.

“Either I get to France or I die at sea,” were the last words of Rafik, a 27-year-old man who died with other 11 people in 2003. His sister Salwa said their mother’s health collapsed at the news of her son’s loss and she eventually died.

Ridha is an example of migrant determination. For him, France is the gateway to a life of wealth.

“Each summer, I insist on going to France at any price. It’s possible to have a car and to be wealthy after a short time of work there,” he said.

The 23-year-old has twice tried to reach France. He almost died in first attempt and was arrested in his second one.

“Last year we were more than 75 people. We caught the boat from Hergla but it couldn’t resist the waves. After several hours it sank, killing many people.” “I was lucky to find a piece of wood which saved me,” said Ridha, who insists he will keep trying until he gets to France.

According to official data, the number of Tunisians living abroad stands at 800,000, of whom 60 per cent are in France.

Their remittances represent 5 per cent of national wealth as measured by gross domestic product.

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