The image of an entire Tunisian family, accompanied by their cat, aboard a clandestine migrant boat on its way to Italy circulated media outlets and social networks. The image « is symptomatic of changes in migratory rationale » explains Khaled Tababi, sociologue and author of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES) 2019 report on migration. How has clandestine migration evolved and who are its new faces?

Kerkennah archipelago, one of the main departure points for migrants headed towards Italy. Photo credit: Sana Sbouai

Far from subsiding, irregular migration has evolved over the past three decades to encompass different categories of migrants such as minors and women. Migration has even become a « family undertaking » writes Tababi. « Its rate will not stop growing over the next decade », the author of the report predicts.

The diversification of migratory routes

European policies fighting clandestine migration have spurred the diversification of migratory routes, according to the FTDES report. Since 2008, Tunisian migrants have gone through Melilla, the border city between Morocco and Spain, to arrive in Europe. In 2019, 1,235 migrants used this route compared with the 2,681 individuals who opted for the Mediterranean trajectory to Italy through Malta. Among the Tunisians who reached Europe the same year, 23.09% went through Spain, 69.69% through Italy and 6% through other countries. The FTDES notes that the cost of clandestine migration varies according to the selected route. While the cost of crossing the Mediterranean ranges between 2,000 to 3,500 dinars, crossing Spain’s land border costs somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000 dinars.

Tunisian migrants at the Lampedusa detention center, January 2018.

Other routes have also emerged, such as those through commercial ports, or from Turkey to Greece for some 8,000 dinars, plus the airfare to Turkey. Another itinerary involves traveling to Serbia without a visa and arriving in Italy by plane using false papers, or else by car. Clandestine migration along these routes is not new, but developed in 2019, according to the report.

« Over the past few years, we have witnessed the professionalization and internationalization of migratory networks », writes Tababi. He continues, « Networks no longer only circumvent security surveillance and climatic constraints but also take advantage of the country’s economic and political situations. For example, there was a migratory wave during Tunisia’s electoral period that exploited the security focus on voting. Fishermen facing economic crisis also benefited from the smugglers who purchased their boats ».

Tababi also points out that migratory waves often coincide with the failure of social movements to achieve their objectives. He notes a spike in clandestine migration that correlates with the failed protest movements in the Gafsa mine basin and in Kamour. « Irregular migration has become a form of collective protest », he remarks.

Dessin de Sadri Khiari, octobre 2017
Drawing by Sadri Khiari, October 2017

Other migrant populations

The past few years have witnessed the emergence of another migrant population: minors. In 2019, there were 472 unaccompanied minors and 97 accompanied minors who migrated clandestinely to Europe. Whereas migration during the nineties was primarily characterized by solitary attempts to which families were opposed, « irregular migration has become a family undertaking in which relatives contribute financially, and by providing information. There are even entire families who embark together on this adventure. Accompanied minors are thus traveling accompanied by a family member », explains Tababi, who says that the increasing cost of irregular migration has incited families to help subsidize it.

Tababi points out the failure of mentoring structures for minors in minors’ decision to migrate clandestinely. « School no longer plays the role of social ladder. Families, facing socio-economic crises, are failing to assume their mentoring role. Orientation structures for minors such as youth centers are deficient. Minors are left to their own devices in the street, in cafés and in other marginalized spaces. It’s in these spaces where the decision to migrate clandestinely is made ».

Illustration by Carole Perret for a CIMADE report

Although irregular migration remains essentially male-dominated, more women have become a part of the phenomenon since 2008, writes Tababi. The reasons for women’s migration—economic precarity, for instance, are the same that motivate men. The difference lies in the fact that, contrary to men, women with a higher education rarely attempt to migrate.

The women who choose to migrate irregularly generally have a limited level of education. « The reasons for their migration are the patriarchical pressure which prevents them from pursuing their education, from working or from doing what they enjoy. They are robbed of their freedom to make decisions, realize their ambitions, educate themselves, work, travel, pursue hobbies or choose a partner (…). Another cause of women’s migration is the desire to flee a social milieu that stigmatizes them following family disagreements or disputes (divorce, abandonment of children, violence, family separation, etc.). Some also migrate to join a relative or spouse », according to the report. In 2018, 138 Tunisian women reached the Italian coasts out of a total of 6,006 Tunisians. In 2019, women constituted 8.76% of the 3,987 illegal migrants who arrived in Italy. « These are only numbers from official sources, without taking into account the numbers that managed to escape authorities’ fishing nets » says Tababi.