Smuggled: Part #one

The room stinks of sweat and cigarettes. Everybody is smoking, I wonder whether it’s even allowed. Not that rules matter very much here.

I’m in the waiting room of the Ministry of Home Affairs on Avenue Bourguiba in Tunis. I need a written, signed and stamped permission from the Tunisian government to ask people questions and publish them.

That’s why I came: To understand how the Africans we’re rescuing in the Mediterranean, and struggling to integrate, get smuggled to Europe by other Africans.

Note: The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that almost 130,000 irregular migrants and refugees have arrived in Europe through the Mediterranean in the period from 1 January to 25 February 2016. Of these, 9,086 have travelled through the Central Mediterranean migration route, from Africa to Southern Italy. The majority of them are from Senegal, Gambia and Nigeria.
View of Avenue Bourguiba in central Tunis from a window of the Hotel Africa. Taken by Eileen Quinn

Tunisians do not like to be called “Africans”. “I’m not African, I’m Tunisian.”, Mouhamed Trabilsi, my fixer, tells me. His skin is as black as any other man or woman from Sub-Saharan Africa, but he was born in the Maghreb and doesn’t wish to be called anything but “Tunisian”. This is the proof of how this continent as we know it today was a Western invention, made with rulers by rulers sitting at a table, putting people together who, in the most peaceful case, barely tolerate each other.

Back to bureaucracy. It’s the worst part of my job, probably of any researcher’s daily activities. This is particularly true if you are in the Southern hemisphere of the world, where it’s sunny most of the time, food is fresh and tasty, people are relaxed, and bureaucrats happily incompetent.

We cannot help you, madame.”, I’m told by pretty much all governmental agencies I have reached out to. It is understandable. Who would want to see their name associated with evidence that irregular migration and people smuggling are not at the top of the policy agenda in Tunisia?

It took me quite some time, and considerable patience, to get my head round the actual figures behind irregular migration in the country. Numerous afternoons spent searching the literature left me with the absolute certainty that immigration statistics in Tunisia are not updated, as well as with a stinging headache for all those hours in front of the screen. Here is what I managed to put together so far:

UNHCR, whose latest available statistics on Tunisia are those for 2015, estimates that 983 refugees and asylum seekers reside in the country. However, this figure refers just to migrants who registered with the UN agency, meaning that the actual number of irregular immigrants in the country is largely unknown.

Data collected by the Migration Policy Centre up to 2013 suggest that the number of immigrants from Sub-Saharan countries in Tunisia has increased since the Libyan conflict in 2011.

Note: 345,238 migrants reached the country fleeing the Libyan civil war in 2011 only, according to the IOM.

Although hard to say with certainty due to the sporadic nature of investigations, it would seem that Tunisia is not a destination country per se, but rather a transit point for migrants intending to reach Europe, particularly from neighboring Libya by sea.

A similar lack of clarity and information applies to the legal framework regarding refugees and asylum, currently technically inexistent in Tunisia. The original migration law of 1975 was modified in 2004 in order to implement the Palermo Protocol against the smuggling of migrants; however it limited its reform to the general reinforce of penal sentences against assistance to irregular migration, making no major step ahead concerning the rights of foreign nationals.

Following the political uprisings in 2011, and election of a new government, a Draft Constitution was created in August 2012, yet its adoption was consistently dealyed. Finally, an Action Plan for 2013–2017 was signed by the European Union and Tunisia to establish a dialogue on migration, but a formal legal framework regarding especially irregular migrants has not yet been adopted.

Nowhere in the mountain of papers and reports inside the buildings of Tunisian Ministries is there a clear and precise guidance on what to do (or not to do) will illegal immigrants. And even if there where, no one I ask seems to know. It all happens at the discretion of each legislator, police officer, humanitarian organization, employer, or citizen. Including whether or not immigrants hold any right in front of national laws.

As a migration researcher raised and trained in Europe, I soon came to the understanding that the way illegal immigration is presented to us by politicians and the media is not only ethnocentric- to put it in Lévi-Strauss’ appropriate terms- but incomplete. We are made to believe that the current migration crisis is a “European emergency”, and that our countries are the only ones having to deal with the burden of undocumented, and needy human beings.

The more I dig into the vast world of migrant smuggling and irregular migration, the more I realize we couldn’t be further from the truth.


One would think dying with dignity is as much a fundamental right as living with dignity is. For example, being buried, having your family informed if your body was found floating at sea after the dinghy you were traveling on from Libya drowned, allowing them to cry and process your passing over a grave they can touch with their hands. Mouhamed, who volunteers for the Tunisian Red Crescent (TRC) in Zarzis- one of the few humanitarian organizations in the country providing real support to immigrants, dead or alive- puts it this way:

Bodies are recovered in the South of the country because we’re so close to Libya. They do not get any formal identification, no one takes the trouble to contact their families, and all of them are buried without a name.

In all honesty, there’s no other way to put it.

On the road from Ben Guerdane- nearby the Libyan border- to Zarzis, where Mouhamed lives and works at the TRC. Taken by Eileen Quinn

You can see the Western coasts of Pantelleria from the beach of Sili Mansour, North East of the country. You can see Europe by standing on a beach in Tunisia, and reach it in less than a day of navigation. You can also see the Libyan town of Ras Agedir from the territory of Ben Guerdane in the Northern part of the border between the two countries.

Note: Ben Guerdane has long been a hub for jihadists, with many radicalized Tunisians crossing the Libyan border to become fighters of the Islamic State. On the 8 March 2016, a group of ISIS militants crossed the same border and attacked Ben Guerdane, causing approximately 45 deaths. It is believed that at least 10 among these fighters had been trained in the southeastern territory of Tunisia.

People used to hear gunshots of Libyan militias from Ben Guerdane at the beginning of the revolution in 2011 which became known as the Arab Spring, started when a man set himself on fire in Kasserine to bring democracy in the Maghreb, and ended in total chaos.

Hassan remembers that fire very well, being from Kasserine himself.

I am proud of being a citizen of Kasserine. That’s where it all started, where the first ideas which later fueled a change were produced. We began well, but didn’t keep up the good work. If you ask me, we’re back to tyranny, because I think corruption is just another form of tyranny.

He reminds me of those photographs from the North African Campaign, faught in those lands by Westerners for almost three years at the beginning of the 1940s, when the Italian flag was still waving in Libya and the French one in Tunisia.

His arms are covered with tattoos and scarves, each one of them carrying a story to be told. And I want him to tell me those stories. As he speaks, he passes his finger on those marks as if each one of them represented a defined chapter of his past. He has turned his own body into the index of his life.

Hassan speaks Italian remarkably well. That’s because he lived in Italy for over five years. His journey in Europe began at Sea, on a boat that left Libya on the 8 August 2005. The smugglers he paid 2000 Libyan dinars (approximately 1300 Euros) for the journey, placed another 80 migrants from Africa and Bangladesh on that boat, telling them they had to keep going straight. No food, no water, no contacts. Their services had been offered “as per original agreement”.

Three days later they were all rescued by the Italian Coast Guard. After this, the immigration centre in the Island of Lampedusa for three months, then Modena in Northern Italy and his arrest for selling cocaine and heroine.


I had never met a true anarchist before. Hassan remains the only one I know to this day, profoundly disillusioned at any form of State authority. “The only real example of just power is the one that comes from people for people. All States are corrupted in nature, hungry for money and hierarchy”, he argues with an excited tone. Something makes me think he particularly enjoys saying this inside the Ministry of Home Affairs.

The next scarf Hassan points to- on his belly- is the last chapter of his life in Europe, precisely in Belgium, when the authorities sent him back home.

He explains:

I had been arrested once again for selling cigarettes illegally. That’s when they understood I was an undocumented immigrant. Belgium is no Italy, if you’re caught there they kick you out, no pity whatsoever. I couldn’t leave Europe, not after years of hope for a new life. So I decided to cut my belly. They wouldn’t expel me if I was bleeding and ill, that’s what I thought. I am a rebellious bastard, you see. One night I started a protest at the hospital because I couldn’t let them kick us out. That’s when they bit the hell out of me. My arms still hurt. That’s no democracy.

He has stopped dreaming about Europe as much as he stopped believing in a less corrupt Tunisia. I’m still unsure of what he wants. Whether to get justice for having been bitten up in Belgium, another chance to go back to Europe, or simply to forget all of that in Kasserine. One thing is sure though.

Hassan Dhibi Hasnaoui is a real anarchist.

Images and text by Eileen Quinn — All rights reserved

This work is the first chapter of an ongoing project on migrant smuggling from Africa to Europe.

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