The Mistreatment of Tunisian Migrants: Fortress Europe ‘Protects’ Itself Against Border-Crossers

‘Every Italian prime minister talks about “finally” having an effective policy of deportations, “finally” creating new effective collaborations with Libya, and “finally” combatting “illegal” immigration.’ This is what Richard Braude argues in his Jacobin piece on Italy’s intensification of its war on migrants under the governance of the current prime minister, Mario Draghi. In February 2021, Guiseppe Conte was deposed, and Draghi was sworn as Italy’s new PM. While Draghi was widely hailed as a pro-European bulwark against the populist Right, the very first weeks of his government were marked by a wave of attacks against asylum seekers and migrant-rescue NGOs. In April 2021 Draghi met with the new Libyan prime minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, in order to discuss oil, gas and ways to ‘combat’ undocumented migration from the former Italian colony of Libya to its former coloniser.

This search for a so-called solution to stop North African migrants from using Italy as a ‘gateway’ to Europe is not limited to Libya. The Italian authorities consider Tunisia another source of unwanted North Africans. In June 2021 the Tunisian president, Kais Saied, was invited to Rome for a meeting to discuss ‘cooperative’ measures to stop irregular migration. Observers have routinely pointed out that this so-called cooperation has exposed asylum seekers and migrants to abuse and torture. Yet Draghi says that his country pursues a ‘balanced, effective and humane’ migration policy.

It is noteworthy that paperless migration represents a minefield for Draghi because his coalition government includes parties whose views clash on this ‘issue’, such as the centre-left Democratic party and the anti-migrant far-right League, to which former prime minister Matteo Salvini belongs. In 2018 Salvini, who was in office then, accused Tunisia of exporting criminals and convicts, not gentlemen.  In May 2021 this right-wing leader pressed Draghi to take action against migrants, tweeting: ‘A meeting with Draghi is needed, with millions of Italians in difficulty, we can’t think about thousands of clandestine migrants’.

This refusal to think about migrants and asylum seekers is manifested in the prison-like detention centres in which migrants are incarcerated. Young Tunisian Bessem Bacha has endeavoured to disclose the careless treatment of detained migrants on social media. One of his strategies was to try to enter a detention centre and record the atrocities taking place there. However, he was caught and punished with fifty-three days’ imprisonment for daring to reveal their secrets. Bacha was also sentenced to a ten months of house arrest, and an electronic monitoring device was attached to his ankle to control his movements. When it became clear to Bacha that he would not be able to access a detention centre/prison again, he changed his strategy. Instead of reporting from the prison as he initially intended, he decided to provide a platform for prisoners to speak about the brutality inflicted upon them.

Since the whole world is indifferent to or perhaps unaware of their suffering, Tunisian border-crossers have started using their phones to document their daily agony. Through his YouTube channel, which is titled after his full name, Bacha has allowed imprisoned Tunisian immigrants to expose the atrocities of detention. Since May 2021 Bacha has been posting videos that unmask many human rights violations. The Tunisian migrants who have made the videos highlight that this mistreatment is exclusive to them. They say repeatedly that they don’t understand why Italian authorities single out Tunisians and treat them worse than they treat Algerians and Moroccans.

Italy fears the implications of the unstable political situation in Tunisia because the Tunisian Revolution has led to a huge increase in border-crossings by boat. These fears were exacerbated after the Tunisian president took exceptional measures to freeze parliament. Indeed, the embattled parliamentary speaker, Rached Ghanouchi, has started playing the migration card to win EU support for his political agenda. In order to remain in power, Ghannouchi has been trying to convince the EU to oppose Saied’s decision by threatening that thousands of Tunisians would migrate to Europe as a result. This geopolitical context reveals that Italy’s neglect of Tunisian migrants’ safety, dignity and human rights, which I discuss later in this piece, is part of a deterrence strategy that aims to send the following message: ‘This is what awaits you if you come here’.

So, what awaits border-crossers in Italy’s detention centres? The series of videos posted to Bacha’s YouTube channel show that, in some rooms/cells, only one dirty, ragged mattress is provided. As a result, many Tunisians must sleep on the floor. Prisoners who are lucky enough to get sheets say these are never washed or changed. Moreover, the videos show dirty bathrooms without doors. Tunisian immigrants talk about the scarcity of toilet paper. No water is provided in the toilets, which negates any impression that these bathrooms are fit for use.

The situation is even worse for women and girls due to lack of privacy and fear of rape and sexual harassment. In this video, a Tunisian woman talks about the difficulty of taking a shower and begs people to help her. In another video, a Tunisian mother accompanied by her eight-year-old daughter talks about women’s and girls’ discomfort as they change their clothes or shower. She highlights that the bathrooms do not have doors and that women and girls must share them with men.

Furthermore, the videos document that Tunisian border-crossers have all been put in tight, crowded spaces with complete disregard for the risk of COVID-19 transmission. This video shows a room full of young immigrants. the teenager who made the video points at COVID-positive roommates who have not been separated from the rest of them. Some other underage detainees join him in pointing at COVID-positive cases and asking for a solution.

This deliberate negligence reveals the devaluation of migrants’ lives. Moreover, the setting of biological hazards in which migrants are incarcerated shows that migrants are left to die. In addition to the COVID-transmission risk, this footage shows that the floor of some rooms is full of human excrement. The faeces can only testify to the cruelty of the Italian detention regime, which destroys immigrants’ physical and mental health.

The cruelty of this inhumane system can also be seen in the physical violence it has inflicted on Tunisian border-crossers. The same video shows guards beating defenceless immigrants with batons. The guards are wearing riot gear, as if they were fighting real enemies who represented real threats. The threat these men actually represented was wanting to breathe some fresh air, while their guards expected them to walk in designated areas only. The immigrant who made the video tells us how guards had hit him savagely the day before. The reason for the beating was that this man had left his cell and walked in the two-metre-long alley that is located—as the video shows—within the bigger cage. It is noteworthy that this brutality was not motivated by a fear that he could have escaped. As the video shows, the whole space in which immigrants are locked is a well-guarded iron cage from floor to roof.

It is noteworthy that these human rights violations have resulted in serious acts of self-harm. A video shows a cord that one of the Tunisian prisoners attached to the iron fence in order to hang himself and end his daily torture. The despair caused by these horrific conditions has led to other suicide attempts as well. Not knowing when the imprisonment will end and the daily degradation to which Tunisians are subjected lead to severe stress, anxiety and depression. These hideous conditions have also led many of them to cut their legs and arms.

I end this piece by explaining that the immigrant prisoner who documented the cord says that he is the father of a sixteen-year-old son. I wonder how the son felt when he heard the voice of his father in this video. I wonder how the families of the two mothers who were begging for help felt when they saw them. Finally, I wonder how the Italian prime minister would feel if I were to point out the hypocrisy of his country, which illegally gets rid of tons of Italian rubbish by sending it to Tunisia, while it treats Tunisian immigrants—human beings—like rubbish.

Between detention and neighbourliness in Darwin’s shadowlands

Domenico de Pieri, 13 May 2021

Australia’s policy of indefinite detention has been recognised by the UN as a form of torture. We are adding irreversible psychological trauma to already highly fragile lives.

About the author

Jyhene Kebsi

Dr. Jyhene Kebsi is the Director of Learning & Teaching at Macquarie University. Her research focuses on transnationalism, postcolonialism, globalization and asylum.

More articles by Jyhene Kebsi

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And so what? Ok, fine! Tunisians are abused in Italy, probably in France and Spain too. What should be our priorities we people of the South, Algerians, Tunisians, etc… Should we blame European polities for not caring enough for our illegal migrants? Or, rather should we point the fingers at our politicians who after more than 70 years since political independence have succeeded only in driving the most energic sections of the population off their countries? I don’t think that by appealing to the European bourgeoisie (if this bourgeoisie still exists) through the language of human rights we are going to advance the situation. On the contrary, I am disgusted by that rhetoric! We are not going to advance the situation by subscribing to that demeaning logic. Not at all! So what? Should the Italian authorities welcome migrants and refugees in 5 stars hotels and touristic resorts so that people like you will be satisfied? Why are we so adamant not to see the larger picture and start with a strategy to end this phenomenon. Appeal? Appeal to whom or what for? Why cannot we behave like adults and build polities that answer our own youths’ needs instead of expanding on the begging bowl? I watched that video of the mother with a sick child asking to be relieved! I am horrified at the behavior of this mother. Why should she expect others to help her out of a situation where she endangered her life and that of her sick son? Mind-boggling but also very simple. We have to grow up and stop expecting help and the first step toward this is to stop soliciting other peoples for help. Italy, like France and like Spain, has enough of its own problems! Why should we burden them with ours?

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