Zarzis — The photo of 15-year-old Walid Zreidat stares out from a banner, a serious-looking youngster with bright brown eyes and a Levi’s T-shirt. Flanking him are those of 17 other youngsters who set sail for Italy from this southern Tunisian fishing town, never to return.
“He left on a Wednesday,” said his father, Salim, slumped nearby and smoking a cigarette, of Walid’s departure in September. “On Thursday, we didn’t get a call from him saying, ‘Dad, we’ve arrived in Lampedusa.’ Same thing Friday.”
Fishermen and other rescuers eventually recovered eight bodies, some buried in unmarked graves. But Walid counts among 10 others still missing after their rickety boat disappeared in the Mediterranean off Zarzis’ shores in September.
The boys’ bid to leave their homeland underscores a broader desperation in this North African country over the crumbling economy, soaring joblessness and a democracy gone awry.
“There’s a sort of collective despair,” said Alaa Talbi, director of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, an NGO specializing in migration, among other issues. “People want to change things — their context, their neighborhood, their town — Tunisians want to leave their country.”
Talbi’s group says Tunisian migration is hitting numbers not seen since its 2011 revolution, which catalyzed a wider revolt against authoritarian systems across the Arab world.
Nearly 40,000 clandestine Tunisians reached European shores this year via Italy and a newer route through Serbia, according to the forum’s estimates. Nearly 30,000 were pushed back by coast guards. Hundreds of others like 15-year-old Walid are dead or missing.
Still, others are leaving the country legally — including some 400,000 engineers and more than 3,000 doctors over the past five years, reports say.
“It’s not just linked to the economic and social crisis,” Talbi said, “It’s also linked to mobility and a choice to live elsewhere.”
Those who stay face shrinking prospects. In Zarzis, whose economy turns around olives, fishing and a fickle tourism industry that dries up in the winter, men of all ages idle in coffee shops.
Tunisia’s economy has been battered by poor decisions, and more recently the COVID-19 pandemic and war in Ukraine. Basics like sugar, milk and gas are in short supply. Unemployment stands at nearly 20%. The country is hoping for a $1.9 billion IMF loan to help stay solvent.
The multiparty democracy that emerged from Tunisia’s revolution has all but vanished since President Kais Saied seized far-reaching powers last year — consolidated under a new constitution he pushed through in July, despite less than 30% voter support. Nine in 10 eligible Tunisians did not vote in December 2022 elections for a vastly weakened parliament, which Saied instead argues helps strengthen grassroots democracy by bypassing party lists.
Most political parties boycotted the vote, and after the dismal results called on Saied to step down. The powerful Tunisian General Labor Union, or UGTT, has also broken with the president, criticizing him for setting up a system that was “fertile ground for oppression and one-man rule.”
Yet some remain hopeful Tunisia’s democracy isn’t buried for good.
Youssef Cherif, Tunis office director of the Columbia Global Centers policy institute, predicts the country is in for a stormy “transitional phase” in the years to come, “with one ruler and no political parties” — but a political alternative could emerge again.
“Tunisia as never before is in need of a fresh air of ideas, a fresh air of faces, a fresh air of political alternatives. And this is the perfect moment to provide that,” said Zied Boussen, a research fellow at the Arab Reform Initiative. “I don’t know where it’s going to come from.”
For now, however, many ordinary Tunisians have given up on politics. They blame the country’s raft of often-bickering parties for years of post-revolution gridlock and corruption. Once-soaring support for Saied, elected in a landslide in 2019, has dwindled as well — although he remains popular, analysts say, for lack of alternatives.
Risking the sea anyway
“We have no confidence in Kais Saied, or Ennahdha, or any of the other politicians,” said Salim Zreidat, the bereaved father, referring to the once-powerful Islamist-inspired party that counts among Saied’s main opponents.
He and other grieving families, along with locals in Zarzis, have staged protests and an ongoing sit-in, demanding explanations from the government over its perceived failure to find and identify their missing loved ones. Several were later discovered buried in unmarked graves.
Saied has called for an investigation and speedy answers. But families say that hasn’t yet happened.
Some are searching for answers elsewhere.
“My cousin died, so did my best friend. Most of the people in the boat were from my neighborhood,” said Belsam Hnid, 25.
Even so — and despite having been recently deported from France as an illegal migrant– Hnid wants to take the boat again.
“There’s no future here,” he said. “There’s nothing that would make me stay.”
That sentiment is shared by sub-Saharan African migrants who have made Zarzis a stopover point–undeterred by two graveyards a few kilometers away that are filled with bodies of fellow travelers who failed.
“I have no documents to take me to Europe by plane,” said 23-year-old Christiana Bockarie from Sierra Leone, who crossed the Sahara by motorbike before making her way to Tunisia.
Today, she earns about $6 a day doing housework, saving for her boat fare.
“I take the risk to go to Europe by sea,” she added. “It’s not easy, but you have to do it to succeed.”