The youth of Gafsa


di Tommaso Tamburello

The “Lo sguardo dalle frontiere” (A look from the border) editorial is written by operators of Mediterranean Hope (MH), the migration project promoted by the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy (FCEI). This week’s “look” by Tommaso Tamburello comes from the Lampedusa Observatory.

Lampedusa (NEV), 2 November 2017 – Inside the Lampedusa hotspot, the Tunisian youths go about their lives in the certainty that they will be sent back to their country at any time. The deportations provided by the bilateral Italy-Tunisia agreements terrorise them so much that for several days now they have been protesting and engaging in extreme actions such as hunger strikes and sewing their mouths in silent protest.

The situation in Tunisia

Last week we mentioned the socio-economic situation in Tunisia, a country suffering from very high unemployment (15.3% since the last surveys), which even reaches 40% among the younger population. These estimates reach extremely critical levels in southern parts of the country and the hinterland, which are poorer and more disadvantaged in terms of social assistance and infrastructures. The conditions of poverty caused by the lack of jobs combines with other factors that cause discontent and that compromise the country’s social stability: for example, environmental pollution in some regions and associated health risks; the endemic corruption of the ruling class and the favouritism system of job allocation, already present when Ben Ali was in power and now apparently even more rooted. We are told about a situation where police violence and torture towards detainees are normal everyday occurrences, in a climate of repression and political dissent masquerading as the fight against terrorism and crime.

The appeal from the hotspot and peaceful protest

On 27 October 2017, a young Tunisian guest of the centre posted an appeal to the international public opinion on his Facebook page announcing that some guests had gone on a hunger strike. This drastic decision aims to reclaim the right to circulate and to protest against forced deportation. The statement reads: “We are threatened with forced repatriation in violation of international conventions that guarantee freedom of movement, that oppose deportation policies and unjust bilateral agreements that give priority to border safety at the expense of the respect for universal rights. […] Our dreams are no different from those of young Europeans, who enjoy freedom of movement in our land and all over the world in search of other experiences, but also to promote freedom, social justice and peace. Today, we call upon all free people who defend the existence of an alternate world dominated by universal values and solidarity. Because as your money and goods flow freely into our homelands, you imprison our dreams behind your walls.”

Samir, Mohammed, Karim: life in Redeyef

We met three Tunisian youths between the ages of 25 and 30 in the streets of Lampedusa, who are guests of the centre. They are among those involved in the peaceful protest and are on a hunger strike; we gathered their testimonies: we will call them Samir, Mohammed and Karim.

The young men are originally from Redeyef, a small town in the southwestern hinterland of Tunisia and located in the middle of the Gafsa mining basin. The Gafsa Phosphates Company (CFG) has been the only economic engine in the region for a long time, capable of generating 3% of the entire Tunisian GDP on its own, in a country that is one of the world’s leading exporters of phosphates. However, all this wealth has not been redistributed in the region, which remains one of the poorest in the country and is clearly lagging behind in terms of infrastructures. To all this is added the high level of cadmium and uranium pollution in the air and water deriving from mineral processing, which is the cause of the dramatic health conditions of those living in the area, manifested by a very high incidence of cancer and other serious diseases.

Redeyef is the city where, in January 2008, the inhabitants protested following the rigged results of the competition for jobs in the Gafsa Phosphate Company. The uprising of the inhabitants of Redeyef is historically important: it gave rise to the violent repression of Ben Ali’s government and is considered to be the precursor of the social movements that in 2011, reclaiming freedom, dignity and work, led to the fall of the government, as well as the subsequent revolutions of the Arab Spring.

The meeting in our Mediterranean Hope office in Lampedusa

Samir: “We all have a college degree (Samir speaks perfect English, he has a University degree in teaching, editor’s note) but there are no economic possibilities for us. We cannot find work and several members of our families do not have any form of income. There are many families, perhaps with five children, who have to survive on a basic monthly income of 400 dinars, i.e. about 120 euros. It is impossible to maintain a family on such a low sum, and I am not talking about the possibility of providing a good education, but the possibility to buy food every day.

There are no hospitals and our health is not very good because phosphates are damaging it, look at my teeth. It is caused by the water we drink, tap water, because we can’t afford bottled water. Our health is severely damaged by phosphates and other chemicals, which damage our lungs when we breathe. Our bones are fragile as a result of this. What’s more, unemployment and poverty deprive us of health insurance and, therefore, of adequate care. There is no infrastructure and the buildings in our areas are not built in compliance with the standards: there is no interest in protecting our safety, we are not treated as human beings.

We are worried about the exploitation of our country’s resources – oil, gas, phosphates, fish and tourism – and the wealth that is generated. We get nothing from all of this, all we get is the diseases generated by pollution.

We are also very concerned about the increasing deterioration in the quality of public education: the government is voluntarily lowering the level of education to make people less aware of their condition and less inclined to develop a critical conscience. The access to jobs is conditioned by knowledge and a system of favouritism and nepotism: jobs do not go to those who have the highest marks or are the most qualified, but to those who know the right people or have the money to pay.”

Karim: “Environmental pollution caused by phosphates present in the air and water is ruining our lives: the incidence of cancer cases is very high. I am 30 years old and I still haven’t been able to find a job or a meaning to my life. I hate my life and I have already attempted suicide once. Taxes are very high and if you have no way of bribing the right people, you can’t expect anything good from Tunisia: with the right friends and money you can find a job, all the others are left out. The government is not interested in us and our problems.”

Mohammed: “Police abuse and violence are a daily occurrence. I was in prison for six months just because I demanded a job. I am also worried about the terrorist incidents in Tunisia; it is a growing phenomenon that is affecting more and more people and I don’t want to be involved. I am afraid of being arrested again for participating in protests and subsequently accused of terrorism. The government uses the fight against terrorism to suppress all forms of political and social dissent.

There are enormous inequalities and disparities. There are a few very rich people, and then there are all the rest who have nothing. A member of my family is seriously ill with cancer; he suffers from very severe head, heart and stomach pain, and has no health insurance or money to buy medicines that can alleviate his pain and suffering.”

What is the situation inside the hotspot? Why are you protesting?

Mohammed: “I love everything about the centre, I am only protesting because I don’t want to go back to Tunisia and I am on a hunger strike for this. I would rather spend my whole life in the Lampedusa centre than be repatriated.”

Karim: “First of all, I would like to thank all the Italians who work in the centre. I have never been treated so kindly in my entire life; even the police officers are kind to me, they always say good morning and ask me how I am. I would like to stay in Italy, France or in another European country. I feel that if I am given the opportunity to stay here, I would be able to exploit my potential and do something good for myself. I have lots of friends and cousins in Europe and they have had the opportunity to start living a dignified life, especially the women, who are treated with greater equality and their rights are better recognised.

I am angry with my government because it takes money from Italy in the refoulement agreements, and the fact that someone profits from my repatriation and from my desperation makes me feel like a product to be traded. I don’t want to go back to Tunisia, I would rather die. I have already attempted suicide once and I am prepared to do it again.”

Samir: “The same goes for me: I will never set foot in Tunisia again, I prefer to die rather than go back and I am ready to commit suicide if they decide to send me back home. It’s the only option I have, really…. I went through hell there and I am not willing to go back and live in those conditions. I repeat, our protest is not against Italy or the conditions of the centre, but is directed at the political injustices of refoulement that affect us. We have done nothing wrong, and we should have the right to move freely. Because the Italians and French, for example, can enter Tunisia without a visa, why can’t we? We are all human beings and we are all equal. We all have a mother who carried us in her womb for nine months and gave birth to us. We have all received an education and we have all studied… What is the difference between us and you?”

What are you looking for in Italy or Europe?

Samir: “We are looking for opportunities, we want to do something good in our lives. Ever since I was a child, I promised my mother that I would study and get my doctorate. I can’t do this in Tunisia, the level of education is low and even if I were to get a degree, it wouldn’t be worth anything in my country. I want to live honestly, I left my country for economic reasons. We only have one life and I want to live it in a decent way. I want to travel and have the right to enjoy beautiful things, as it should be for everyone.”
Karim: “I want to make a life for myself here. I want to meet someone, get married and have children, because in our religion it is extremely important to have a family. If you get married, you have achieved half the goals in life. I want to start a family and lead a normal life, like a normal human being.”
Mohammed: “I also want to get married and have children, but more than anything else I don’t want to go back to Tunisia, where I suffered a lot and where I often felt like I couldn’t breathe because of the anger I felt. I felt as if the government continually discriminated against me, as if I wasn’t a Tunisian, because there are many differences between those of the North and those of the South, like us. We in the South have the resources, but those who benefit are only the wealthy classes in the North and foreign companies. Other African countries are experiencing wars and massacres, while we are living in a sort of cold war, where the tension is omnipresent, the police are always controlling you and daily life is unbearably stressful.”

I asked the three Tunisians why, according to them, so many people have left Tunisia for Italy in the last three months. Their answer is unanimous, and it regards the sudden unsustainability of their condition and the factors that cause it: unemployment, misery and despair.