Where are our children? Families of migrants lost at sea protest

“Enough silence from all governments!” … “Give us the truth : where are the children?” On the rainy morning of November 9, a few dozen middle-age and elderly women and men occupy the stairs before closed doors of the Ministry of Social Affairs in Tunis. Grey sky and cold air accentuate the solemnity of the gathering, yet another demonstration by the families of Tunisians who disappeared while crossing the Mediterranean to the shores of Italy.

Clutching faded photographs and posters whose edges have begun to curl in the damp air, many of those present, members of the association “Destiny for the Youth of the Mediterranean,” don’t seem to notice the inclement weather. Several protesters draw near to the camera, eager to relay their message to the few journalists present. “I don’t have a picture, but film me,” says one woman. “My child…” begins a gray-haired man before others step in close. “Just two words please,” whispers another leaning on his cane.

In the meantime, it is not as easy to grab the attention of the Association president Mounira Ben Hassine, who, intent on engaging with everyone who has turned out to protest, seems to be present in several places at once. “The last seven governments have failed to provide solutions concerning our children. No one from the new government has met with us… Today the FTDES is here with us…” Over the past four years, many of the families present have met with officials, lawyers, and activists in Tunis and Italy, written letters, staged sit-ins and hunger strikes in efforts to push authorities on both sides of the Mediterranean to investigate the cases of hundreds lost at sea. Where the government has failed to engage, the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES) has stepped in, publishing reports and accompanying families in a struggle against “repressive border management” and the restrictive, security-driven policies which perpetuate illegal immigration and dangerous crossings.

In October 2011, families demanded that the fingerprints of those missing be submitted Italian authorities for analysis. It wasn’t until July 2012, after protests in front of the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Italian embassy, that families were informed of the results of DNA analyses. The Italian ambassador at the time confirmed that the fingerprints had been compared with data concerning migrants in Italy, but deferred to Tunisian authorities to communicate the results; for his part, the Minister of Social Affairs indicated that the fingerprints of nine individuals had been matched to Tunisians who had made the crossing in 2010, and that an investigation had been opened to investigate the remaining cases.

In in July 2013, families sent a video-letter to Giusi Nicolini, mayor of Lampedusa, reiterating their demand that the European Parliament set up a joint investigative commission. The mayor followed suit with a letter urging Italian officials, the European Union, and Frontex to “break the silence” and provide answers to the families of Tunisian migrants lost at sea.

Finally, in June 2015, the Tunisian government issued a decree creating a commission within the Ministry of Social Affairs to investigate the cases of Tunisians who disappeared (“following illegal immigration”) between 2011 and 2012. The text designates a commission composed of representatives from the Ministries of Social Affairs, Justice, Defense, the Interior, Foreign Affairs, as well as a medical examiner, an expert in international law, an active member of civil society, and one family representative (designated by the FTDES) to coordinate with Italian authorities and civil society actors.

But the Association’s protest on Wednesday carried a clear message that the commission has not been effective in breaking the government’s silence. “The commission has been working since last year—for nothing” tells us one mother. “We’ve heard nothing from them … Can you imagine?—it’s been four years, and there are no results,” she says, exasperated.

As the rain comes down harder, demonstrators begin to chant. Mounira Ben Hassine steps from her place at the top of the stairs and approaches those who have taken shelter under the trees. “What are you doing here?” she demands to know, motioning them back towards the stairs. Turning her gaze to still others who have wandered into a café across the street, she calls to them to join the group, her look hard, her voice strong. Her expression unchanged, she tells us “Today we are not leaving until we have a response. We are not stepping down until we have the truth about are children.”



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