There, and Back Again

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Tunisia recovered more than 900 bodies of migrants who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea from the beginning of the year through July 20, according to Interior Minister Kamel Feki.

The North African country this year has been handling a record number of migrants from throughout Africa and elsewhere who want to attempt the crossing to Italy, Reuters wrote. Around 75,000 migrants had reached Italy as of July 14, more than double the number that came in the same period in 2021. Sicily is around 200 nautical miles away from Tunisia’s northern coast.

These statistics are one reason why the European Union recently struck a deal with Tunisia to limit migration from its shores to those of the north. As the New York Times explained, under the deal, Tunisian officials would strengthen their sea borders, crack down on human trafficking networks, and help bring illegal Tunisians in Europe back home. In exchange, Europe would give Tunisia more than $1 billion in aid to shore up its struggling economy.

Critics recently have wondered aloud if Tunisia can be trusted to treat migrants humanely under the deal, however.

Feki recently admitted, for example, that Tunisian security forces often push small groups of sub-Saharan migrants back into the remote, desert border areas with Algeria and Libya from whence they came, the Associated Press noted.

Temperatures in these regions rose to more than 104 degrees Fahrenheit last month. Migrants traveling through this inhospitable landscape often drop to the ground, exhausted, wrote Africanews and Agence France-Presse. If they are lucky, Libyan border patrols find them and offer them water. Many of them must then live in makeshift camps in buffer zones between the countries, camps that lack toilets, sustainable water supplies, and shelter.

Then there is the growing hostility in Tunisia, remarkably absent until recently, facing outsiders from elsewhere in Africa. Tunisia’s president, Kais Saied, under fire for renewed repression in the birthplace of the Arab Spring, earlier this year warned of a “criminal plot” to overwhelm this predominantly Arab country with Black Africans, PBS reported. Since then, aggression against migrants has risen to what PBS described as a 21st-century pogrom.

“The president set a fire of hatred and hasn’t been able to put it out,” Ramadan Ben Amor, spokesman for the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, told the Washington Post. “It may take years for this hatred to ease. Now, the bodies of Sub-Saharans are washing up on our beaches because they have been pushed to board death ships to Europe.”

Komenan Assa knows that situation well. The 25-year-old from the Ivory Coast moved to Tunisia five years ago, as she detailed to the Post. Then soon after the president exhorted his countrymen to shun migrants, she was evicted.

She left with her baby and her boyfriend on a flimsy, overly packed boat that after eight hours overturned on its way to Italy.

Her boyfriend drowned. So did her baby. Some fisherman found her and returned her to Tunisia. She is spat on, robbed, and screamed at on a regular basis. So she’s saving up to try again.

The Europeans, meanwhile, are also struggling to deal with people like Assa. EU officials had been wrangling over a proposal to alter how migrants remain in the bloc, for example, to relieve pressure on Italy and other Southern European states where migrants first land, Politico reported. Northern countries, however, are blocking the plan. They are leery of accepting more migrants when they can keep them somewhere else.

The issue is shaking up domestic politics around the block, and especially in Italy. Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni ran on a conservative, anti-migrant platform when she won office last year. But her country is also facing critical labor shortages that compelled Meloni to say recently she would issue 452,000 new work visas for non-EU citizens until 2025, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

The migrants don’t know if they should be coming or going.

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