Messages from Tunisian women glorify risky migrant crossings

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) – In a photo released in November, Sabee al Saidi, 18, wears bright pink lipstick as she leans over the side of a rickety wooden boat, calm blue seas s ‘extending behind her. In one video, she smiles alongside a dozen other migrants, gesturing to a popular rap song.

A month later, Chaima Ben Mahmoude, 21, posted a similar video, waving as she made the crossing from Tunisia to Italy with her fiancé in a boat packed with migrants..

The two Tunisian women have sparked controversy with their posts – which show them on seemingly carefree journeys across the Mediterranean, landing in Lampedusa, Italy, then traveling to European cities taking selfies next to monuments as they feature popular fashion brands. Many have criticized them for “normalizing” a trip that kills thousands every year.

According to the Missing Migrants Project, 2,048 people went missing in the Mediterranean in 2021, including 23,000 since 2014. Experts warn that al Saidi and Ben Mahmoude – social media influencers in Tunisia, with nearly 2 million followers on TikTok and Instagram between them – could inspire others to make the dangerous crossing.

“Social media is spreading a view of Europe that is not accurate,” said Matt Herbert, research director at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime.

In the past, he said, the driver of migration was “the diaspora returning home for the summer. People would see their cousins ​​wearing new and expensive clothes and yearn to be like that.

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“With social media, it’s much more visible and more accessible to everyone,” Herbert said.

Tunisia is one of the main departure points for migrants from North Africa to Europe, with thousands of Tunisians joining those making the journey from elsewhere in Africa and the Middle East each year. As Tunisia was once a popular tourist destination with a burgeoning middle class, as the country’s economy deteriorated – with an 18% unemployment rate exacerbated by the impact of COVID-19 – migration attempts exploded.

In 2021, authorities intercepted more than 23,000 migrants attempting to leave Tunisian shores. This number is significantly higher than in 2019, when around 5,000 people were intercepted and the number of dwarfs was recorded over the past decade.

A report by the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime points to rising unemployment and pessimism about the ability of Tunisian leaders to improve the situation. Last July, following anti-government protests across the country, President Kais Saied suspended parliament and assumed sweeping powers, raising fears of democratic backsliding.

The journey across the Mediterranean is known locally as ‘harka’ – a reference to the figurative ‘burning’ of borders and the destruction of personal documents before undertaking the perilous crossing. The underground intrigue that once surrounded the harka has faded in recent years as more and more people have emigrated, and it is widely discussed on social media, in music and on television.

While Ben Mahmoude and al Saidi’s posts drew criticism, many also came to their defense, reflecting how some view the harka as their only option to escape a country in crisis amidst a growing frustration with European Union visa restrictions. France recently cut visas granted to Tunisians by 30% – and by half to Algerians and Moroccans – accusing the countries of not cooperating with the return of their nationals who were illegally in the country.

“Shame on her? Rather, it’s a shame on us! posted a TikToker in response to criticism of al Saidi’s video. “She managed to get to Italy, while we’re all stuck here in Tunisia .”

While undergoing a two-week COVID-19 quarantine at a detention center in Italy, Ben Mahmoude told The Associated Press she understands the risks of the trip. But financial difficulties and her inability to obtain a visa had “forced” her to do the harka.

“I didn’t find anything for me in Tunisia,” she said in the interview conducted via Zoom. “I have a diploma in hairdressing and I couldn’t find a job in this field. … When I did, the monthly salary was really hopeless – around 350 dinars ($120). You can’t do anything with it. You can just use public transport and buy your lunch – that’s it.

Ben Mahmoude, who like al Saidi grew up in a lower-middle-class family in the Tunisian coastal city of Sfax, said it was enough to call a friend of a friend. She paid 4,500 dinars ($1,560) for a seat in the boat alongside 23 others.

Despite his smiles in the messages, Ben Mahmoude said the journey was terrifying. She described a moment when the boat rocked violently.

“I was so scared that I saw death right in front of me,” she said. “The fear was extraordinary, the sea was really rough and there were a lot of big waves. In the boat, we said a prayer and prepared for death. When they told us we had arrived in Italian waters, we couldn’t believe it.

Still, Ben Mahmoude says she was willing to risk death for the chance of a better life.

“I have many friends who have made the harka and they have found outlets in Europe. They put hope in my heart that there is work, there is plenty of money,” she said. “I want to change my life like they did.”

Wael Garnaoui, a psychologist who researches the harka, says much of that hope rests on “the migration lie,” a phenomenon he says has been intensified by social media.

According to Garnaoui, people see others go to Europe and see their apparent success. They think that once in Europe, they can easily get papers, work and money. The reality is often quite different: 2020 data from the European Commission showed that the unemployment rate for non-EU residents was almost 14%, compared to around 6% for the native-born population.

“So they go to the Eiffel Tower and take a selfie in a Lacoste T-shirt, take pictures of expensive cars. .… They tell their family back home that everything is fine,” Garnaoui said. “If they say otherwise, everyone will laugh at them. They will point at other people and say, “If they did, why not you?” »

“There’s so much social pressure,” he said.

In the weeks since Ben Mahmoude and al Saidi arrived in Europe, they documented their shopping sprees, BMW rides and perfect lattes. A photo of al Saidi on an electric scooter in the historic French village of Puy-Notre-Dame got nearly 6,000 likes, while that of Ben Mahmoude under the Eiffel Tower had 8,000. The photos and videos of their crossings garnered hundreds of thousands of likes and shares.

Although the two women have obtained sponsorships in Tunisia that have paid them for their social media recommendations of beauty products and local businesses, it is unclear whether they make money from their posts in Tunisia. Italy and France.

But their messages are having an influence in Tunisia, experts say.

Posts like theirs “demystify” a journey that might otherwise be too terrifying to undertake, said Herbert of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.

“One of the obstacles to migration is the fear of embarking on the journey. … It’s scary. What these videos do, especially the videos of men and women at sea describing their journey, it confronts their fear with a visual reality that people can replace it with,” he said. “It lowers the mental bar for leaving.”

Ayla Bonfligio, a migration expert at the Mixed Migration Center, said that instead of focusing on the lure of glowing social media posts like those of al Saidi and Ben Mahmoude, the real controversy should be “the fact that there are few legal channels for young people to move”. .”

Citing recent visa cuts in France, she said: “This use of migration as a political bargaining chip further limits legal avenues and does not reduce the demand for migration.”

As for Ben Mahmoude, she insists that she does not try to encourage others to do the harka.

“I posted these videos because I always document my life on Instagram. Whether it’s at home, when I’m going out, when I’m in a cafe,” she said. totally normal to post stuff when I was doing harka.”

For many, however, the harka was nothing but a tragedy.

Chamseddine Marzouk, a Red Crescent volunteer in Zarzis, a Tunisian coastal town, has been burying the bodies of those trying to reach Europe for years. By building a makeshift cemetery, Marzouk wanted to raise awareness of the dangers of migration.

Then last summer, Marzouk woke up to find a letter from his wife saying that after several failed attempts to obtain visas, she and their grandchildren had set sail for Europe. “Forgive me, I’m going to Italy. I have no choice but the sea,” the note read.

“I found myself going through the same situation I had been struggling with for years,” Marzouk said.

If an accident happened, “I could bury my family without knowing who it is. I was in shock for two nights and felt such relief when they called me and told me they had arrived.

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