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Boat Migration to Italy (2007)

May 2007, Kelibia (Tunisia). Riadh tells of his attempts to reach Italy by boat and his experience in Italian CPTs (detention centers).

[He often refers to his friend Aymen, whose interview is in the section Italy under the same title ’Boat Migration to Italy’]

We got to know Riadh (name changed) on his farm in a small village on the Northern Coast of Tunisia close to the town Kelibia in February 2007. He is a 30 years old young-man, producing typical farm-products which in this region are usually made of chili or red pepper and homemade olive oil. Riadh tried to reach Italy by boat five times- five times he got caught by the police and deported back to Tunisia. Still he is planning to try it again: “I like adventure, I like travelling. I like to go somewhere else especially over the sea. Nheb dimma nemschi (proverb: I love being somewhere else all the time).” A few months later we met his friend Aymen in Milano [See Aymen’s interview in the section Italy]. They grew up together and made the passage to Italy together five times- but Aymen finally managed to live and work in Milano. His interview, which was much shorter, shows how life on the “other side” of the Mediterranean Sea looks like in reality and how he saw their many risky boattravels.

Riadh doesn’t try to reach Italy just to find a job and earn money. He sees working just as a side-effect. In the first place he wants to travel and see new things, he wants to feel that something in his life is moving. During our many interviews with migrants of different backgrounds and countries (refugees as well as people who would be typified as economical migrants in legal contexts), we had to discover that the narration doesn’t always show the pure fact of the migration itself as a lifechanging movement. The anthropologist Ghassan Hage decribes this as existential mobility, as the existential need to move forward:

„Better the uncertainty, which also means the possibility of mobility, than the perceived certainty of immobility. Often the trauma of migration sets in when one realizes that here too one has ended up being stuck, but in an unfamiliar rather than a familiar surrounding.“ (Hage 2005: 474)

Riadh also sees his many trys to reach Italy as an important part of being able to move. Like many young people in Europe, Riadh likes to see new things. The difference is: Freedom of movement seems to be reality only for those who were born on the right side of the fortress which Europe is building around it’s Southern borders. Aymen had to migrate in order to be able to build up a new life. After he had to quit university due to political problems, there was no opportunity for a young and intelligent man like him in the small, rural village he came from. Riadh’s and Aymen’s stories once more show, that those people who are often represented as masses flooding the European countries by the media, in reality are a lot of different people with individual stories and backgrounds to migrate.

The ease with which Riadh and Aymen tell about the dangers of the sea but also about their long stays in different detention centres (CPT) shouldn’t be misunderstood. They know that being a harraga, a clandestino, is very dangerous, but on the other side they take part of a discourse about adventure and the dream of a better life which is quite normal amongst Tunisian young people. Death and failure disturb the migration project which, due to the political settings in Europe, can’t be realized without any risks. Ahmed, a sixty years old artist who lives in a house directly in front of the harbour of Kelibia, a small, touristic fishertown next to Riadh’s village, has a lot to tell about young people leaving the country by boats: “They can’t imagine that it is so hard, because if the weather is nice, one can see Pantelleria and it seems to be very close. They think ‘it’s not far away!’, and then there are a lot whose journeys end bad, who start with boats which are far too small, then a west wind comes up and they get into troubles. I talk about really young people, 17, 18 years old, and a lot of them die. These things still happen.” There are not only the dangers of the sea but also the risc of being caught before leaving Tunisian waters. Since a few years illegal boat migrants are punished strictly by the regime under the president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. Once caught by the Tunisian police, the attempt to leave the country illegaly can be punished with up to 10 years of prison, and as many witnesses reported, in Tunisian prisons torture and putting psychological pressure on the prisoners are not unusual. The political situation in Tunsia can be described as problematic. President Ben Ali is ruling the country since 20 years and built up a system of denunciation and fear. While the country is associated with all-inclusive holidays and idyllic beaches by most of the Europeans, the violations of human rights which constantly take place tend to be unknown. At the moment hundreds of oppositionals but also young people who just surfed on one of the many forbidden websites, are imprisoned- some of them since years. Talking about harraga in public is not possible in Tunisia. Ahmed explains the origins of the word: “It is hard to explain, because everybody has his own interpretation. Harraga comes from Morocco because they have a longer tradition of boatpeople. When they came to Spain, they burned their passport. To burn means harg. Because if one doesn’t have a passport, one doesn’t have an identity.” Although Tunisia cannot be described as being a democratic country, it became one of the first and most important partners for European countries regarding the controlling of illegal immigration. There are reports about refugees being held in Tunisian military camps in the dessert. These camps are no subejct to any regulations, but the EU states know about their existence without taking steps against them. Due to these camps and the strict laws on illegal migration, refugees from other African countries stopped taking Tunisia’s North Coast as the starting point for their migration-route to Italy, and nowadays it are most of all the Tunisians themselves who take the risc of leaving the country by boat.

Especially Riadh has seen the inside of a lot of different detention centres (CPTs) in Italy already. In his narrations the ugly and bad sides of these places are never mentioned directly. For him it seems to be more important to lay emphasis on the resistance against the policemen or other authorities: He tells about self-injury, taking wrong identities and jokes he made with the police. Even if these stories might sound funny and innocent, they are part of a strategy of keeping one’s dignity- even in places like detention centres where single stories and backgrounds become numbers and people become nameless beings. After many tries and long times spent in CPTs or hidden in friend’s places, Riadh is still not planning to give up trying. Most of his friends live in Italy, a part of them, like Aymen, already legalized and with a regular work. A few months before our last meeting a friend who is living in France on a regular basis, offered him an invitation to be able to enter the country legally. But Riadh says that he isn’t going to accept the offer.

In September 2007 we visited Riadh again. This summer he didn’t make another try again, which is also a financial question. Bying the equipment and saving some money for the first weeks in Italy is a lot for a young farmer who earns his money by agricultural products only. His family has already spent a lot of money on his migrationplans- and saw him being deported back five times while most of Riadh’s friends managed to stay in Italy or France. Of course, nobody is talking about the conditions under which those who managed to stay in Europe have to live and work. Ahmed, who is one of the few Tunisians who dared to speak about his opinion in public, is aware of the structures under which the problems arrised: “In the 60’s or 1965 they needed us. France, for example was rebuilt on the back of the immigrants. But now it’s a chaos. And Europe, what did Europe do for these young people? They did nothing. All of them, the Europeans, the British, the Frenchmen, they came to Africa and colonized it, they took away the best things and then they threw it away. And what do those young clandestini want now? They just want to have a chance as well. But as soon as they arrive in Europe it’s the same story again: they are thrown away.Get out of my life!”

cited literature: Hage, Ghassan. 2005. A not so multi-sited ethnography in a not so immagined community. In: Anthropological Theory (2005), 5 (4). pp. 463- 475

(Annkia Lems and Christine Moderbacher, gennaio 2008)

Riadh, Kelibia (Tunisia), Februray 2007, interview held by Annika Lems and Christine Moderbacher

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