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Where are our children? Tunisian families push for truth over missing Mediterranean youth Open in fullscreen

Alessandra Bajec

Where are our children? Tunisian families push for truth over missing Mediterranean youth

Since 2011 hundreds of Tunisians have disappeared after crossing the Mediterranean [Getty]

Date of publication: 5 December, 2018

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Since the Tunisian revolution, hundreds of youngsters have illegally crossed the sea into Europe, never to be seen or heard from again, as their families continue to demand answers.
Long, heavy silence surrounds the fate of hundreds of Tunisians who have gone missing after boarding boats bound for Italy since the 2011 revolution.
During the 8th World Social Forum on Migration in Mexico City in November, a delegation from Tunisia represented families of the missing, sharing their stories, exchanging search experiences and hoping to build ties.

"This year's forum on migration saw the launch of a global movement for families of missing migrants," said Imed Soltani, head of Land for All, which was part of the Tunisian delegation that joined other family members from another eight countries in Mexico City.

"It was the very first time that the forum included the dossier of migrant disappearances. That's why we decided to participate, and we hope we can do something back in Tunisia," he added.

Imed is among scores of Tunisians fighting tirelessly to know the truth about missing family members. His two nephews Belhassen and Slim, disappeared at sea and like many others, their fate still remains unknown.

Europe is not paradise 

Sitting in a cafe in downtown Tunis, Hajer Ayachi shares the vivid memories of the day her two sons Mohamed and Bechir, 27 and 24 at the time, took a boat bound to Italy.

"It was March 1, 2011, 9.50pm. They left with eight other boys from the old city of Tunis and headed to Haouaria, on the northern coast, to then embark toward Sicily," she recalls. 

Two years prior, her eldest had travelled to Italy for the first time but did not succeed in making a living there, and soon got involved with drug dealing.

"After serving two years in prison, he came back to his homeland where he worked in a call centre for a while. He then decided to go back to Italy to try his luck again," Hajer, who lives between Tunis and Hammamet, says. 

"Mohamed wanted to move to Europe and change his life. He wanted to drive beautiful cars and make more money. Bechir gave me hell after his older brother first left for Italy, insisting that he should also be free to go," she adds. 

"I told them both that Europe is not paradise. I tried to explain that it would be very hard for them. They don't speak the language, and if they can't make money, what they will do? They will be in the streets and get into trouble."

Hajer Ayachi tried to dissuade her two boys from leaving [Alessandra Bajec]

Her many efforts to dissuade the two boys from leaving did not stop them. The day they departed from Haouaria, Mohamed called in the evening to let his family know that he and his younger brother were ready to head off.

After three days without news, Hajer and her husband, Mohamed Mili, searched on the internet for any news. They found that the boat carrying their children, along with 22 others, had docked in Italy, as a news report on Italian TV showed. It gave the parents a grain of reassurance that the two had made it to their destination safely, at least. But that was the last they heard any news about their loved ones.

Read also: Marginalisation driving Tunisians to migrant boats

It was then two years later that Mohamed Mili received a missed call from an international number on his son's number, but they were unable to call back. His wife has since, kept her eldest son's sim card active in hopes of receiving another call. 

With no communication with their families, and no official information on their whereabouts, the mystery around the hundreds of Tunisians disappeared since and before 2011 has become a government matter.

Earlier in April this year, in their family home in Tunis, Hajer found her husband frozen on the bed after having a heart attack. She is certain that his death is linked to the disappearance of their sons. Since their departure, he had been constantly fighting against the authorities to shed light on the cases.

The Migration Policy Centre estimates that around 29,685 Tunisians arrived in Italy "irregularly" in 2011 alone, amid a lack of security during the Tunisian uprising.

The Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES) suggests that since 2011, at least 1,500 Tunisians have disappeared after crossing the Mediterranean, but so far has only recorded 504 cases.

Read also: Italy pushes for repatriation and deterrence to cut down on Tunisian migrants

Parents of the missing youngsters have formed organisations and mobilised alongside several others for the last seven years, holding protests in front of Tunisian ministries, the Municipal Theatre of Tunis as well as the Italian embassy. But there has still been no answers from the authorities.

Imed Soltani said he travelled to Italy several times to file three complaints against the Italian government.

"When I went with my association to Agrigento, (a hilltop city on Sicily's southwest shore), in 2012 and searched for photos of Tunisians who had landed on Italian shores, we found there was nothing in relation to March 2011 in the archives. It was as if that file had been removed altogether," he explained. "How can that be?"
He also submitted a file on the disappearances to the European Parliament in 2014. The Special Commissioner of the Italian Government for Missing Persons, Vittorio Piscitelli, then began working on the case alongside Land for All and other Italian civil society groups.

A whole dossier was created collecting information including photos, videos, data and fingerprints of the youth, as well as testimonies from their parents and copies of the complaints lodged.

However, Imed said that by early 2016, the commissioner stopped his work after reportedly receiving a fax from an unknown source in the Italian government advising those concerned with the Tunisian missing migrants case to address it to their government.

An implicit reference was made to a deal reached by former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi in 2011, suggesting that both parties were responsible for the disappearances.

"They agreed to grant legal status for a number of migrants, repatriate others, and mentioned some 850 had been lost somewhere between Tunisia and Italy," Hajer said referring to the bilateral meeting which, she thinks, is connected with the controversial affair of the young Tunisians not yet found.

"I believe it's a state affair between Italy and Tunisia... all paths that lead to the truth have been blocked for us," the mother of the two missing men added. 

A commission of inquiry tasked by the Tunisian government was created in 2015 to investigate the cases, but according to Abderrahman Hedhili, former president of the FTDES, the government-tasked committee was "not being serious".

He added that FTDES soon withdrew after they realised it was a mainly a formal body established to keep the concerned families quiet, and since the end of last year, there has been no real investigation.

"We met several times, meeting after meeting, but nothing progressed," Abderrahman Hedhili explained.

"I believe that the Tunisian government is mainly responsible. It didn't initiate any steps with Italy on this affair and did nothing for its citizens," he added.

For the families of those missing, different scenarios haunt them as to where their children might be. 

"I have taken over from my husband since his death, it's me handling the dossier now," Hajer says.

"I will keep fighting for my sons and for the truth."

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis. 

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec

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