Between migration and precarization

Diary of a trip through five Tunisian cities

13.Mar.13 - Intro 1: This fragmentary diary was written in late January, before the assassination of the leader of the left opposition Chokri Belaïd on February 6th 2013 in Tunis, and the general strike and mass protests that followed in many cities around the country. The current developments of the last weeks are therefore not included. Despite this, whoever reads this text can no doubt perceive, through the description of two local revolts, the latency of a greater uprising and with it the potential for a "second revolution". In our travels we (again) experienced that the reality of protests against poverty and exploitation, the struggle for better wages, for freedom and dignity, are very much alive in Tunisia. And we think that these social demands - and not the media polarization between Islamic governing party and secular opposition - must remain at the center of our considerations, of our solidarity and of our search for common grounds.

Intro 2: Between December 25th 2012 and January 4th 2013 we were as a small delegation of the Afrique-Europe-Interact and Welcome to Europe networks in Tunisia, again after several previous visits. The objective of this trip was to intensify communication with previously existing contacts and find new ones, in order to verify if and in what measure the idea - that had emerged in the context of Boats4People1 - of an activist bus-caravan for the freedom of movement in the autumn of 2013 was feasible2. Our not so much organized in advance trip through several Tunisian cities became a whistle stop tour rich in stimulation "between migration and precarization". We came into contact with a kaleidoscopic spectrum of social struggles that offered multiple points of connection for the caravan project. And wherever we went we met, most of the time by chance, local people who showed a lively interest in participating. In the following diary a few of the stops are described, along with their particular field of struggle.

Tunis - 25.12.2012

To a foreigner the Medina, the old part of Tunis, seems like a disconcerting labyrinth, with its countless alleys and shops. Through the crowd we followed, to the best of our abilities, our contact to the "Article 13" meeting point. This is the name of a new group of young activists whose name refers to the paragraph of the declaration of human rights that attributes to each person the right to leave their land of origin. In the covered courtyard of the house there were pictures from the days of the December 2011 revolution, when marches against the Ben-Ali regime would start from Medina. "Article 13" is mainly made up of young women, many of whom are students, who have already gained much experience in human rights advocacy groups. Before our arrival, they had already discussed some of the issues related to the caravan project; among other things, they expressed the desire to address not only "the right to leave" but also the "right to stay". Self-organization and alternatives to dangerous migration would have to be discussed in workshop and assemblies. They have good contacts in some of the cities that have been suggested as stops for the caravan. We soon elaborated an itinerary for the following days and an "Article 13" activist decided to join us on the trip.

El Fahs - 27.12.2012

No work, no prospects. All 13 of the men who - thanks to our contact - met with us in a café in El Fahs agree on the fact that as soon as they can they will leave the country: like Harragas3 towards Italy, in any case towards Europe. Some of them had already tried to leave several times, but were forced to interrupt the sea-crossing or failed in other ways. But they have no doubts that they are going to try again.

If one looks at the relationship between number of inhabitants and number of emigrants this small city around 70 kilometers south of Tunis is in the first places of the list of cities from which Tunisians have left over the last two years. However, it was not so much this statistic that brought us to consider this place as one of the stops of the caravan. What brought us to consider it was the news of a local uprising in El Fahs in September 2012, set off by a sea tragedy not far from Lampedusa4. 80 people, including women and children, disappeared - probably drowned. Only 58 people survived. Neither the Italian nor the Tunisian government released information about the identities of those who had survived, or about the causes of the disaster, even though it was obvious that the coast guards of both countries were aware of the existence of the ship and could have intervened to save lives. Yet another instance of "left-to-die"as an deterrence policy? In El Fahs alone 10 families lost members. The news spread fast and the participation was widespread because "almost every family has a migrant child"5. Seeing the inactivity and evident policy of misinformation of the governments, the 9th and 10th of September thousands of people in El Fahs erected - in the true sense of the word - barricades. A general strike completely blocked the small city, and the roads leading into and out of the city were blockaded. In the ensuing clashes three police stations and the local headquarters of the governing party were set on fire. To re-establish "calm and order" special police units were called in from Tunis.

At the end of our visit we also spoke with the mother of a man who had disappeared. Her husband was going to Tunis to make researches and to organize with other people affected by the situation. They did not want to give up the hope of finding their sons who had left in search of a better life because at home there were no jobs or sources of income.

Siliana - 28.12.2012

We found ourselves in an interesting conversation already while asking for information. Upon being asked about the events of recent weeks a boy on the street proudly indicated the still-visible traces of a fire on the crossway. Barricades were erected in front of government headquarters in Siliana. More than a month has gone by, in November 2012, since the name of this small city 120 kilometers south of Tunis had received international media attention. This because for entire week here a tenacious mass protest and general strike exploded "against poverty and unemployment" as a German news provider quoted, with surprising accuracy. The thousands-strong protest succeeded in deposing the corrupt and hated governor (who belongs to the governing En-nahda party). The governor’s headquarters was under siege for several days, and demonstrations ended with street clashes with the police units sent from Tunis. The police used live ammunition (pellets!) on the demonstrators, and on Facebook photos circulated showing serious injuries, in many cases eye injuries.

Already in December 2011 Siliana was one of the first places in which large demonstrations and actions of social struggle occurred. The local council of self-administration that emerged was dissolved after the revolution, but those who took part in it have stayed "vigilant regarding perceivable mutations, even in social aspects of daily life"6. The recent November uprising in Siliana had begun to expand to the nearby cities of the unsettled Tunisian inland, when the UGTT union that had played a key role in the local general strike and in the more general structure of the protest worked out a deal with the central government, a "treaty for the pacification of the situation". The government promised the resignation of the governor and "measures for the improvement of the regional economic situation". It is easy to forsee that these promises for economic improvement will not be kept, already in December state employees went on a hunger strike in protest against their low salaries7.

In another meeting on the streets in Siliana we got to know that the salary of the 3000 employees of the German industry Dräxlmayer - that in the industrial zone of Siliana produces cable harnesses for the most important German automotive industries8 - is on the edge of the Tunisian minimum wage of 250 Dinar (125 Euros). The 90% of the employees are women, between the ages of 19 and 30, many from the even poorer periphery of the city, who are exploited with a three-shift-working-system for a salary that doesn’t guarantee survival, even in Tunisia. The Dräxlmayer affiliated company in Siliana is part of that chain of just-in-time suppliers with other branches in Tunisia, but also in Egypt and Eastern Europe. Until now the production has been just barely effected by the uprising and by the strike - mainly targeting the government - both in 2010/11 and November 20129. And given the reduced capacity for earning, the possibilities for the company to blackmail its workers are high: anyone who complains is kicked out, immediately. This notwithstanding, the company directors, to be prepared for any development, elaborated a detailed plan to react to the crisis10.

Regueb - 29.12.2012

Our fourth stop is a few hours drive south and is only 40 kilometers from Sidi Bouzid, the place where on the 17th of December 2010 the Tunisian revolution, and thus the Arab Spring, began. In December 2010 in Regueb there were immediately solidarity demonstrations that were just as quickly met with fierce repression by the regime, causing the first death-victims.

We met up with an "old" friend whom we met in Germany last year. As a representative of the UDC, the union of the unemployed graduates11, who contributed decisively to the revolution, he was one of the keynote speakers at the opening manifestation of Blockupy in Frankfurt, in May 201212. When we called him to inform him of our visit and bring up the idea of the caravan, he showed immediate interest. He organized a meeting for us with 15 activists belonging to different initiatives and organizations: unions, student organizations, the leftist party Front Populaire, Red-Attac and persons engaged in the cultural sector. We introduced ourselves and presented the project of the caravan. This exposed us and our project to series of critical questions: why do you want to protest here with us, when the real problem is in Europe? The brutal immigration policy and racism come from Europe, why don’t you do the caravan there? How can we develop peer collaboration given the gap of wealth between Europe and Africa? Isn’t the demand for freedom of movement still an unreachable objective? Isn’t the capitalist system the real problem? Although with many reservations, we found ourselves in agreement on some points: we agreed that the high unemployment and mostly precarious forms of labor in Tunisia must also be considered through the lens of the unequal relationship between north and south and that naturally there is a right to migration. Against the planned agreements between the EU and the Tunisian government for the intensification of the controls on migrations we should organize ourselves and each of us make pressure on our own government.

We were not able to fully discuss many of the topics that emerged in the meeting. But because all the present are interested in doing so we decided to continue the discussion at the March 2013 World Social Forum in Tunisia.

Choucha - 31.12.2012

The first time we entered the UNHCR-refugee-camp near the border with Libya, it was May 2011 and since then we have had regular contacts with the refugees and migrants and we have been active in trying to guarantee attention and visibility to their demands, to the "voices of Choucha". When we met 8 representatives of different communities, on New Year’s Eve in a tent transformed into a bar, we encountered a mix of desperation and resoluteness. The backdrop is the fact that in Choucha there are around 300 people who are not, like the other circa thousand refugees - that wait for their places of resettlement - recognized by the UNHCR as refugees and thus without prospect of resettlement. Since November 2012 the UNHCR has reduced their portions of food and denies them the basic health care in order to force them to a "voluntary repatriation". Those who are involved have tried with letters and delegations to the people in charge in Tunis to obtain the reopening of their legal procedures and the supply of basic services. But the UNCHR has done nothing up to now and therefore new actions of protest are scheduled. The project which seems to meet the biggest consent among the self-organized refugees is an upcoming big demonstration of several days in front of the UNHCR in Tunis, 500 km away. About 100 rejected refugees, among whom there are also families, are willing to participate, but the transportation and the accommodation in the capital would cause several logistical problems. We could only guarantee that we will take part in the solidarity campaign and contribute also financially as much as possible to the success of the protest. Appendix: on the 27th of January more than 90 refugees from Choucha travelled during the night by buses paid with donations to Tunis and started a protest the next Monday in front of the UNHCR that lasted for 5 days13.

Tunis - 2.1.2012

Back in the capital we were invited by the women of the Italian feminist collective "25-11"14 to a meeting with the relatives of the Harragas missing. This collaboration started in 2011, from the time when at the beginning of the summer after the revolution the borders-regime which had endured till then collapsed, Frontex and Nato deployed themselves in the canal of Sicily, and in the meanwhile many ships disappeared. In some cases the relatives of the victims confirmed to have recognized later on their sons and daughters on Italian newscasts. They dont trust the Italian and Tunisian government anymore; rather they started to organize themselves in several committees.

In the inner courtyard of a hotel about 50 mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters arrived to speak about how they should go ahead. The previous attempts to find the missing by confronting the fingerprints of all the migrants registered in Italy brought to no results.

A man addressed us and showed us a short video with his mobile phone in which his son waved goodbye from a ship. We didnt understand immediately that these were shots from the ship that disappeared in September 2012. And shortly afterwards we met the father of a son whose wife we had already met in El Fahs. The different groups of relatives seem always better connected, and in the last two years they organized regular protests in front of the responsible ministries and also on 18th December during the international day of migrants rights.

They demand the abolition of the European visa regime and criticize their own government for its collaboration with the EU. "We made the revolution for dignity and democracy" declared the spokesperson of a group of Tunisian mothers of missing already in July 2012 in Monastir during an international assembly in preparation of the World Social Forum. And further: "The government is inactive, our sons and daughters made the revolution, but we dont have any results on where they are. There will be a second revolution if the situation doesnt change".

[1] Boats4Peopole started with the first actions in July 2012 between Sicily, Tunisia and Lampedusa. Among other, there have been lay-overs in Tunisi and Monastir.
[2] The idea of a caravan for the right to freedom arose from a discussion among Tunisian and European activists in July 2012 during the activities of Boats4People in Monastir. The inspiration came from the experience of the Afrique-Europe-Interact caravan from Bamako to the World Social Forum in February 2011. It was crucial the realization of the Tunisian activists that the topic of migration, even though it is present in the life of every Tunisian family, is not often an object of public discussion. The bus-caravan across Tunisia is planned for the beginning of September 2013. An important part of its preparation will be a tour of information and discussion in March, right before the World Social Forum of this year in Tunis. The participants − European and African − will try to improve the networking with the local activists of the different stopsand to further develop the basic topic of discussion and the forms of action. Only afterwards it will be possible to formulate a concrete plan of mobilization.
[3] It is the North African world that indicates the migrants that leave their country without a visa, literally it means "the one who burns the border";
[4] The so-called "Lampione incident";
[5] Quoted from the talk with a contact in El Fahs;
[6] Bernard Schmid on Labournet/Germany of 6th December 2012;
[7] See of 1st January 2013: Tunesien:Proteste in Siliana gehen weiter, von den Massenmedien verschwiegen.
[8] Germany is the biggest foreign investors in the field of the industry of automotive parts and with about 280 firms that employ more than 50.000 people is altogether the forth foreign investor. Today Tunisia holds 80% (!) of its foreign commercial relations with Europe, above all France, Italy and Germany and particularly the European firms use the Tunisian bases as "an extension of the field of national production" and of "third party labor".
[9] In other places was and is different: according to the researches of Stefanie Hürtgen the rage and the protests were headed since the "Arab spring" also decisively against foreign industrial complexes. Above all in the textile sector, young women started to protest against the oppression, the exploitation and the low wages. The rage is strong because also these factories, especially foreign, dont pay the minimum wage, they dont respect the social legislation and introduce more and more temporary work. One day after the escape of Ben Ali, as someone has reported to her, in Gafsa in the backcountry, a factory of Benetton was set on fire, and this must not have been an isolated case − from that moment on, a lot has been said in Tunis about the dismantling of foreign industrial complexes and about the necessity to "restore the peace" in order not to frighten the investors.
[10] See on this the article of 31st December 2012 published on the website of the Forscungsgesellschaft Flucht & Migration
[11] UDC: Union des diplomés chômeurs, union of the unemployed with a degree.
[12] Blockupy: from the 16th to the 18th of July 2012 in Frankfurt under this title blockades and demonstrations took place in the district of the banks where there is the seat of the BCE.
[13] See , and
[14] The "25-11", named after the international day against violence against women.