ZARZIS, Tunisia — The economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic is propelling thousands of Tunisians to make the perilous Mediterranean journey in search of better living conditions, with the largest wave in nearly a decade reaching Italy's shores.
During the first eight months of this year, nearly 8,000 Tunisians crossed the Mediterranean to Italy, six times as many as last year, according to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, and Tunisians are now by far the largest nationality arriving in Italy. An average of two migrant boats left the coastal town of Zarzis every evening during the summer bound for the Italian island of Lampedusa, local fishermen said.
A 23-year-old house painter from Zarzis said he set out last month with eight other men and five boys, including his younger brother, on a 25-hour voyage across an “agitated” sea. When they arrived in Lampedusa, the “joy was indescribable,” he said in an interview conducted via Facebook.
The young man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid attracting more attention from Italian authorities, spent a month in offshore detention before being released. Many of his fellow migrants, however, are likely to be deported. Regular deportation flights from Italy to Tunisia resumed last month.
Overall, sea arrivals in Italy this year of all nationalities — about 20,000 people as of last month — are far fewer than the hundreds of thousands recorded in 2016 and 2017, the United Nations says. Still, experts say the surge in Tunisian migrants is likely a harbinger of a new wave, as the coronavirus takes a mounting toll on livelihoods in developing countries.
“In the medium term, I think it’s safe to assume that there’s going to be more pressure on the migratory front to Europe,” said Olivia Sundberg Diez, a policy analyst at the European Policy Centre, a think tank in Brussels.
Aymen Hussein, 25, who works in a Zarzis restaurant, said bad weather in recent days has been the only thing preventing him from trying to make the crossing. His restaurant had closed during the lockdown, and when it reopened, his low wages were not enough to keep up with rising food prices, and he’s struggling to make ends meet, he said.
Khouildi Saif, 25, a fisherman in Zarzis, said his peers face a grim choice: “I’ll either die in my country or I’ll die in the sea.” These days, he said, many prefer to risk the sea.
Obtaining visas to Europe is costly and difficult for most Tunisians. For years, they have resorted to dangerous Mediterranean crossings known across North Africa as the “harraga,” or “burning,” as migrants “burn” borders in search of a better life in Europe.
Amid unprecedented border closures in the spring, due to public health restrictions, irregular migration to Europe virtually ground to a halt. But after the restrictions lifted, more than 4,000 Tunisians crossed to Italy in July alone, the United Nations says. Tunisians have made up about two-fifths of all sea arrivals this year, a proportion that migration experts say is unusually large.
The influx has caused alarm in southern Italy and raised diplomatic tensions between Italy and Tunisia. Some Italians on the far right have spread fears that migrants are bringing the coronavirus to the country, despite Italian officials’ statements that irregular migrants account for a small percentage of imported cases.
When cases were first reported in Tunisia in March, authorities reacted swiftly, closing external borders and most businesses, imposing a strict curfew and barring travel between regions. The measures paid off. By the time its borders reopened in June, Tunisia had recorded only 1,064 cases and 50 deaths.
But the restrictions further damaged an economy already afflicted by high unemployment, declining purchasing power and stark inequalities. Most Tunisians are unable to work from home and so were hit especially hard.
“These full-on lockdowns have very different effects in developing countries than they do in developed countries, where working from home is easier and more people are formally employed,” said Max Gallien, a research fellow in political economy at the University of Sussex.
Tourism, vital to the country’s economy, has dried up, with tourism revenue falling 61 percent by August, according to statistics from the Central Bank of Tunisia. At this time last year, French and Russian beachgoers filled the tables of Zarzis, said Sabrine Kilani, who tends bar at the Restaurant Le Dauphin. Eyeing a room of empty seats in the middle of a recent lunch hour, she described this tourist season as “null.”
As a result of the coronavirus, the country’s economy is expected to contract by 4.3 percent in 2020, according to International Monetary Fund projections, representing the largest recession since Tunisia gained independence from France in 1956.
Political instability, meanwhile, has exacerbated the crisis. Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh resigned amid corruption allegations in July, leaving Tunisia without a government at a critical time and further denting the public’s confidence.
Situated on Tunisia’s southeastern coast and far from coast guard radars, Zarzis has long been on the front lines of irregular migration to Europe. Fishermen here take pride in having saved hundreds of migrants who set sail from Libya and were shipwrecked off Tunisia’s coast.
UNHCR has reported more than 300 people dead or missing in the central Mediterranean this year. Armed with higher-quality GPS devices and knowledge of the seas, Tunisians often fare better than migrants leaving from nearby Libya. Still, Romdhane Ben Amor, communications officer for the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, estimated that dozens have disappeared at sea this year.
Slah Din Mcharek, president of the Zarzis fishermen’s association, said every boat leaving Zarzis for Italy these days carries one or two young fishermen. “The fishermen, we saved people,” he said. “Now, we make the ‘harraga.’ ”
The young house painter, recently released from detention in Italy, said his life plans had not initially included the hazardous, illegal trip to Europe. After he received his high school diploma, a university in Paris promised him a spot in 2016, he said. But his visa applications were rejected twice.
He wound up painting houses in Zarzis, saving enough to secure a spot on a harraga boat in 2019. The Tunisian coast guard foiled that first attempt. When the pandemic hit and painting houses became impossible, the painter said he felt he had no choice but to try again, as soon as possible. He took out a loan and his mother sold a piece of gold to fund his passage.
When he and his fellow travelers first reached Lampedusa, they spent 12 days in a reception center filled with migrants of various nationalities, including women and young children. He was then placed in quarantine on a large boat off the Sicilian coast.
Most Tunisians who make the journey to Italy, including the Zarzis painter, hope to end up in France. But under the European Union asylum system, the country where a migrant disembarks is responsible for processing their asylum application or return.
On Wednesday, the E.U. proposed revamping its system to speed up deportations and allow for asylum seekers to be more evenly distributed across European countries.
Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio has said Italy considers Tunisia to be a safe country and will return all Tunisians who enter irregularly. In late July, Di Maio threatened to withhold development aid to Tunisia until authorities agreed on a plan to stem the outflow. Italian and European authorities traveled to Tunis in August to discuss the issue with Tunisian President Kais Saied.
Italy has promised Tunisia $13 million for border-control measures. The E.U., meanwhile, will extend an existing border-management program with Tunisia by 20 months and $11.8 million, Hichem Dhahri, a spokesman for the E.U. delegation to Tunisia, confirmed.
Saied has called a security-oriented approach to migration insufficient and emphasized that Tunisia must generate jobs and development.
In recent weeks, coronavirus cases in Tunisia have shot up. But there is widespread consensus that the country cannot afford another lockdown.