In his densely populated neighborhood of worn French colonial architecture in Tunis, 29-year-old Achref was shirtless and wearing a broad straw hat when he met New Lines in a narrow street and pushed open the black metal gate to his building. Inside, on a beat-up couch, he played with his phone. The air that filtered in through the half-shuttered window was heavy and hot.
Achref told me about a day more than a decade earlier that changed his life, when the police came to their home looking for his father — a smuggler and roaming street vendor — and his contraband goods.
“The cops broke down the door, grabbed my dad and took his stuff,” Achref said.
It wasn’t the first time the police had come for his father, who was often arrested as he tried to smuggle cheap goods — electronics, fuel, home goods, cigarettes — to and from Algeria and Libya on Tunisia’s network of microbuses, called louage. But the 16-year-old Achref, who had dropped out of school in his hometown in Tunisia’s impoverished interior to join his father in the capital to try to keep his family afloat, couldn’t bear it.
“I was crying and pleading with them, saying, ‘Let him go!’ Then one of the cops pushed my dad, and I hit the cop with a glass cup. Then they arrested me. I was put in a juvenile jail for two months,” he recounted with a matter-of-fact shrug of his shoulders.
Those two months in juvenile jail, and the criminal record — called a “B3” — that came with them, would change the trajectory of his future and pull him into a cycle of underemployment and incarceration. Without a secondary education (“I studied, but nothing stuck in my head, because all I thought about was how to help my family out financially,” he told me) and with the B3 dogging him any time he applied for a formal job, Achref was left to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the informal black market.
“I sell cigarettes on a little portable table — mostly smuggled cigarettes from Libya,” in working-class neighborhoods lumped around Tunis’ ancient walled city, he told New Lines.
“And I sell toys to little kids at the train station nearby. Being around them takes away my stress. I joke with them,” he said, with the first real smile after talking for almost an hour. “The kid without money, the handicapped child — I give them a toy for free.”
Since his initial arrest, Achref has rotated in and out of jail 13 times for petty crimes like vending without an authorization. Each time, he spent anywhere from two to 18 months behind bars.
He says he begged the authorities to expunge his record so he could pursue aboveboard employment. “I don’t know how many times I’ve asked the Ministry of Interior and the governor of Tunis to let me work any legal job,” he said. “But they just ignore me.”
The money he makes hawking his contraband barely covers his basic daily needs, with little left for his brother Tito’s barber training and Achref’s largest expense: paying for a seat in a smuggler’s boat across the sea to Italy.
“I’ve migrated illegally nine times,” trying to reach Italy, Achref said. “I made it to Lampedusa and Trapani, but I was arrested and deported. I’m waiting for another opportunity, and I’ll try again.”
Achref’s story embodies a paradox gripping Tunisia: The country’s police, who receive outsize amounts of funding from the European Union, United Kingdom, United States and other foreign entities to crack down on extremism and control illegal immigration, are in reality exacerbating the issues they’re funded to fix. Harassed and brutalized by police for petty infractions, branded by courts and prisons with administrative and social stigma, and blocked from a productive or prosperous future in Tunisia that is legal and secure, young men like Achref from working-class neighborhoods are pushed so far to the margins that many fall off the map altogether and migrate illegally to Europe.
In 2022, the Italian Ministry of the Interior logged 16,292 Tunisians who landed on Italian shores — a rate higher than the previous four years. Nearly twice that number, some 29,129 migrants, were intercepted by Tunisian authorities between January and October 2022 along the Tunisian route of the central Mediterranean, never making it to Italy. And at least 544 Tunisians perished on the crossing between January and October 2022 alone, drowning when shoddy boats capsized and help never arrived.
The number of migrants — from Tunisia, West Africa, Syria, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, among others — landing on Italian shores has shot up dramatically in the early months of 2023. Interior ministry data show some 31,300 migrants arriving in Italy since the start of the year, up from around 7,900 in the same period last year. In recent weeks, the Italian government has declared a state of emergency to contend with the influx of small boat landings.
The Italian authorities only track migrants registered upon arrival in Europe — those fished from the sea by the coast guard and brought to migrant reception centers. Many more arrive clandestinely, slipping into rocky inlets in small boats by night, undetected.
Like so many other Tunisians in his situation, Achref sees the only way up in the world as out of Tunisia. “It’s so sad, but the freedom I’m looking for can only be found abroad. The best thing there is that if you’ve got papers, you can work well. I want to work.”
According to Tunisia’s National Statistics Institute, an average of just over 16% of Tunisian adults are unemployed. This is likely a significant underestimate, as countless Tunisians are semi-employed in the informal sector, like Achref, often with meager income and no job protections. Estimates also suggest that unemployment for youth — those aged between 15 and 24 — may be as high as 40%.
The Tunisian economist Fadhel Kaboub, president of the Global Institute for Sustainable Prosperity, believes that the seemingly intractable state of poverty that many Tunisians face is the result of a development model that goes back to the early days of independence from France. After a brief period of decolonization efforts in the 1960s, Tunisia, like many countries in the Global South, was lured back into an extractive economic development model that trapped the nation in a cycle of debt to foreign lenders like the International Monetary Fund, the EU and others.
That debt came with conditions, largely a push for austerity measures — slashing state spending on public services like education, hospitals and infrastructure and cutting food and fuel subsidies. Those policies in turn created social and economic exclusion, said Kaboub, diminishing the middle class and driving poverty.
Despite fiery rhetoric about standing up for the poor and working class and promises to realize the Tunisian Revolution’s demands of “freedom, work and dignity,” Tunisia’s current president, Kais Saied, has pressed forward with the same economic model.
“I haven’t seen anything from this new guy,” Achref said, referring to Saied. “Nothing. I was born in 1993. You think I should wait another five years or 10 years for him to fix up the country? Wait till I’m 40 for things to get good? No. If you can’t fix it now, selemu aleikum — goodbye,” he said with a dismissive wave of his hand.
“The Kais Saied government came in with a very shallow populist diagnosis of the structural problems,” often attacking corruption and economic cartels in Tunisia as the primary obstacles in society, said Kaboub. “Yet, what Saied and his government don’t understand is that the underlying economic structures — the low wages, ballooning foreign debt, steadily declining spending on public services and infrastructure — are abusive and extractive with or without corruption, and that they will still produce the same disastrous results for the Tunisian people.”
Those disastrous results Kaboub spoke of come in two forms: social instability and the government’s response to an increasingly desperate population. Protests have been a near constant since the 2011 revolution, with people demanding government action on issues like economic rights, cost of living, jobs and subsidies on basic goods. Yet the government is less and less willing to address these popular demands because they threaten austerity policies obligated by the growing external debt. Instead, they’ve turned their attention, and budget, to an area designed to keep social unrest at bay and prop up the parts of government that perpetuate these policies: security.
In 2015, two high-profile terrorist attacks — one on a beach resort in the coastal city of Sousse, and the other at the famed Bardo museum — sent shockwaves through the nascent democracy and rattled many of the external partners that were supporting Tunisia’s transition away from the autocratic rule of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was overthrown in the 2011 revolution. Rosa Maryon, a researcher at Cardiff University who focuses on the role of security policy in Tunisia, said the incidents shifted the focus from democratization toward security and allowed the security forces to revert to more draconian practices and policies that had been the norm under Ben Ali in the name of keeping extremism in check. Millions of dollars and euros from the U.S. and EU states flowed into training, equipping, advising and funding a militarization of the Tunisian security forces, she said.
“After the attacks of 2015, external actors seemed to shift their focus away from democratizing or reforming the Internal Security Forces to focusing on security assistance,” she said.
Much of the foreign funding is divided between anti-terrorism work and the externalization of the EU’s borders, but security assistance has played a role in reinforcing the violent capacities of the Tunisian state writ large.
“The EU is happy to turn a blind eye to the more repressive practices of the Tunisian security services they are funding and equipping,” Maryon said.
The U.S. State Department’s proposed 2024 spending plan seeks a 35% reduction in its bilateral aid to Tunisia, cutting the aid package from the $106 million they requested in 2023 to just $68.3 million. The cuts are intended to “signal the United States’ continued concerns over the weakening of democratic institutions, while allowing sufficient funding for civil society, citizens and climate resilience,” a State Department spokesperson recently told Al-Monitor. But the funds earmarked for security assistance would only be cut by around 12%, from $61 million to $53.8 million for next year, and still make up the bulk of the funding. Despite documented security sector abuses of ordinary Tunisians, the U.S. policy of “prioritization of performance” — a form of capacity building to make security forces more efficient at eliminating perceived threats — has undermined efforts to reform the security apparatuses.
The foreign funding goes hand in hand with the Tunisian state budget. Yasmine Akrimi, a Tunisian doctoral candidate and North Africa research analyst at the Brussels International Center noted that the Tunisian government prioritizes security spending even as crucial public services wither. “If you look at the 2022 Finance Law, the health and education budgets were lowered while the [Ministries of] Defense and Interior budgets have expanded,” she said. “I think the state knows social anger is growing and there will be a need for a strong police presence in the streets.”
But when Tunisian security forces tightly police and control already-marginalized groups — young men, the working poor, the unemployed — under the broader guise of fighting terrorism or irregular migration, they in fact fuel the very fires they are funded to stamp out. Salafism is on the rise in Tunisia’s prisons and, in working-class neighborhoods, conservative imams have become a draw for many young men who are rejected in other parts of society.
I had met Achref once before, about seven months earlier. In those days he was, as now, disparaging and dismissive of the state, scornful of the police who have long harassed him. But since then, despite his rebellious past and two pistols tattooed on his waist, he had started to believe that a more conservative Islam was the only way for him to achieve a sense of peace and stability in an otherwise unbearable situation. “I need to get closer to my religion,” he said. “I need to start to pray. That will bring me calm.”
He told me that he would give it only one more shot to get to Europe. In fact, the second time I saw him, he was saving money for a smuggler to get him across the sea. If he could make it to Europe and stay, he told me, he would help his brother get to Europe too, where he could hopefully work as a barber. If not, Achref said he would devote himself to God.
Mounir Eleuch, a professor of law at El Manar University in Tunis, says he is making efforts to get ex-convicts reintegrated into the labor market, helping them find work in private companies, cafes, restaurants, or by opening small businesses selling fruit or household goods. Even with his advocacy, it is a challenge to help someone with a B3 find work.
“I struggle to get the proper protection for former prisoners and for their successful reintegration, including employment,” he told New Lines. “I always strive to find work for some of the former prisoners, often without disclosing their status as ex-prisoners to the employer.”
“Though,” Eleuch added, “this work is often precarious daily work.”
Some civil society organizations are also working for the reintegration of ex-convicts into society. Among them is FACE Tunisie. Its “Ebni” (“Build”) project seeks to prevent radicalization of former prisoners and reintegrate them through guidance in finding employment. FACE Tunisie told me it has supported and trained 331 former prisoners, of whom 12 have created their own entrepreneurship projects funded by Ebni, with 12 others finding formal employment and 20 recruited by companies. Despite the positive outcomes, the percentages are still so small as to be negligible.
Ultimately, said Eleuch, the economic marginalization, migration and labor exploitation — both inside Tunisia and abroad — among ex-prisoners are the products of a state that treats those convicted with violence and negligence. To Eleuch, the Tunisian state’s adoption of police repression and its deliberate treatment of prisoners and former prisoners “like germs” have “made the former prisoner who migrates illegally a time bomb.” The experience such migrants go through and the failure to rehabilitate them make them unable to integrate in the society to which they migrate. “And the issue of exploitation by employers always remains.”
In November, I noticed a Facebook post from Achref from the month before, stuffed in between a few writings of Islamic proverbs in classical Arabic and shoutouts in Tunisian dialect to his friends. It was a selfie video of him with a soundtrack: He was standing in front of the famous cathedral of Milan. I messaged him right away. “Fratello Sam,” he wrote back in chopped-up Tunisian Arabic. “I made it. It’s done. I’m in Lyon now LOL.”
Achref sent me a raft of photos and TikTok reels of him on a boat with other migrants, the sunset on the Mediterranean and rescue workers in life vests talking to them. In one video, he wore a white baseball cap and looked proud and serious. The migrants who filled the boat waved and smiled behind him. He flashed a peace sign, and a smile crept across his face.
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