Hundreds of Tunisian harragas remain missing
By Houda Trabelsi for Magharebia in Tunis – 06/01/12
Some 40,000 Tunisians fled their homeland in search of a better life following the downfall of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Civil society groups are now working to account for those who made it, as well as those who never survived the perilous journey to Europe.
"Today illegal immigrants are living under difficult conditions in some European countries in which a minimum of basic human rights are not respected, where they are exposed to numerous afflictions," Abderrahmen Hedhili, President of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), told Magharebia.
Hedhili's group was just one of the associations to observe International Migrants Day on December 18th, held under the slogan, "Suspicious silence is intolerable…Where are our children?" The day was also a chance for parents of the missing to raise awareness of their cause.
"Some immigrant workers face violations when they arrive in the destination country, and these violations are compounded because of their status as foreigners," Hedhili added. "Many of them also live under threat of arrest and arbitrary and illegal detention in poor conditions, as well as suffering from non-payment of wages and confiscation of identity documents."
Hedhili is part of a committee working with Tunisian authorities and parents of missing migrants to track down the status of thousands of harragas.
"The most difficult and urgent files include those of Tunisian immigrants in Italy and France who crossed the border illegally," Dr Thami Abdouly, Secretary of State for European Affairs, told Magharebia.
Abd Aziz Jbeli's son Mohamed left Tunisia last March, crossing the sea and heading for the Italian island of Lampedusa. "Until today, we do not know the fate of my son Mohamed – is he dead or alive?" he lamented.
"We went to the foreign ministry several times so it could help us find a solution, but to no avail," he told Magharebia. "They directed us to the Tunisian Observatory for Social and Economic Rights, who are going to great lengths to find out where our missing children are."
He called on "the new Tunisian government to reopen the files of missing Tunisians in the diaspora and cities with information about our children."
The tragedy of hundreds of Tunisian families has reached alarming proportions more than a year after the revolution. Their suffering was coupled with protests during which they demanded that Tunisian authorities assume their responsibility for Tunisian nationals.
Noureddine El Moubarki's son Karim also fled to Lampedusa last March, never to be heard from again. "European countries must pursue a policy of real and fair solidarity and strive to ensure humanitarian conditions for our children, who are enduring displacement in Europe," he said.
"We want to know news – good or bad. The important thing is to know their fate," El Moubarki added.
Researcher Mehdi Al Mabrouk stressed the need to review immigration laws and preserve the rights of refugees in the new Tunisian Constitution, in line with the 1951 International Convention for Refugees.
He called on the current government "to get to know in depth the situation of the illegal immigrants and missing persons through the creation of an independent national committee to investigate the facts and determine the responsibilities on this matter."
"The causes of migration range from needing to escape the situation of poverty, inequality and conflict, to the desire to obtain a job and better educational opportunities, and even the desire to live in a cleaner environment or better climate," the researcher said.
Al Mabrouk said that in one study conducted of post-revolution harragas, nearly three-quarters were between 20 and 29 years old. The report by the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights also found that 45% were students at secondary schools or universities. More than half of the immigrants were from the Greater Tunis region and 19% were from the centre of the country.
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