By David McKenzie and Ghazi Balkiz, CNN
Tunis, TunisiaCNN — A photograph of Fadi’s smiling face is emblazoned on his mother’s t-shirt. The then-20-year-old is pictured standing near the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in Tunisia.
Above her son’s image, 53-year-old Samia Jabloun has written the words “Dove Sei?” – “Where are you?” in Italian – in permanent marker.
Samia often carries the scraps of IT student Fadi’s life, and the clues she’s gathered to his disappearance, in a pink plastic folder.
She says the desperate hunt for her son consumes her every waking hour: “I will search for him all my life. I will search for him everywhere. I will search for him until I know the truth.”
Samia says she last saw Fadi in February 2021. Her son had traveled to the family’s home in the seaside town of Kelibia – Tunisia’s closest point to Pantelleria, an Italian Island that is a magnet for migrants trying to reach Europe.
“For those few days he was acting strangely,” she says.
He told her he was going on a fishing trip with his cousins, but never came back.
The last images Samia has of Fadi come from a mobile phone video recorded at sea by another passenger on the boat. The Italian coast rises in the distance, as Fadi smiles and quotes a verse from the Quran.
One of the migrants on the smuggling boat later told Samia that he and Fadi both started swimming for shore a few miles from Pantelleria. The man said he made it to land, but that he didn’t know what had happened to her son. Beyond that, Samia has few details.
“I try to get information about him every day,” she says. “I don’t know why he went. He had everything.”
A migrant surge
Each year, thousands of people travel the 700-mile-long Tunisian coast on the migrant trail in search of a better life just on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) claims that the central Mediterranean is the world’s most dangerous migration route, where more than 24,000 people have gone missing just since 2014.
The IOM reports that after a significant peak in 2015, the number of people crossing the Mediterranean was on the decline. However, since 2021, the number of people trying to make the journey has been climbing once more, and the journeys are becoming more dangerous.
The United Nations and Tunisian officials say they are now witnessing the biggest surge in illegal migration to Europe since the Arab Spring began in 2011.
And while millions of Ukrainians fleeing the war in their homeland are welcomed with open arms in countries across Europe, migrants coming from across the African continent pay unscrupulous smugglers and cram into overcrowded boats to make the treacherous voyage across the Mediterranean. Many will die in the attempt.
The recent surge in migration is good news for the criminal gangs who control the people smuggling trade along Tunisia’s coast.
‘Boats with no holes’
A smuggler kingpin who connects migrants with skippers lays out his ruthless calculations in human lives in a slum area of Tunis, close to a strip of beach from which migrant boats depart. Individual spaces on boats bound for Italy can cost up to USD $2,000 for migrants.
The smuggler, who spoke to CNN under the condition of anonymity because of the severe legal repercussions he could encounter if discovered and found guilty for arranging departures, claims that if they arrange six trips and two are discovered, then four get through. “At sea, there are no guarantees. The police might apprehend you. Until your death. If so, death is your endgame.
The vessels are often handmade in warehouses and garages in Tunis, he says.
“We make sure that we have new engines and boats with no holes,” he boasts. “If the weather is good, it is like a swimming pool.”
But the Mediterranean is no pool. Migrant charities say the journey can take eight to 10 hours – if the boats make it anywhere near the coast of Italy at all.
The people smuggler says he plans to send his wife and young daughter across to Italy next year.
“People leave our country because it is bad, Tunis is bad because there is no money, there is no work, there is nothing. When people go to Europe, at least they can live,” he says.
In the heady days of the Jasmine Revolution that helped launch the Arab Spring, many Tunisians hoped a change was on the way. But more than a decade on, that promise has been shattered.
“Tunisia today is going through political, economic and social crises,” says Ramadan Bin Omar, from NGO the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights. “The Covid pandemic also resulted in even more poverty and marginalization and … pushed thousands to take the boats of death.”
Last month, the Tunisian government secured a USD $130 million emergency loan from the World Bank to buy wheat for subsidized bread.
An IMF loan is on the table, but it will require significant reforms – such as reducing the public wage bill and reforming bread subsidies – that will be politically painful for President Kais Saied.
Next week, Tunisians will vote in a referendum on a draft constitution that could give President Saied more sweeping powers – such as the ability to rule by decree – and might potentially lead to protracted instability. The referendum has no minimum participation requirement and most analysts believe it has a strong chance of passing
Matt Herbert, senior expert at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, says Tunisia is experiencing “increasingly fragile politics, increasingly poor economic prospects … all of these are getting worse in Tunisia.”
“In part, because of this, we are likely to see the highest levels of irregular migration from and through Tunisia that we have seen since 2011,” Herbert says.
In a report released this week, the group found that migrant interceptions in the first half of 2022 by both Tunisian and Italian security forces are “well above the levels recorded during the same period in 2021.”
From rescue to recovery
In Bizerte, near the northernmost tip of the African continent, Col. Ayman Mbarki of the Tunisian Coastguard says even with the latest boats – funded with help from the European Union and the United States – it is impossible to stop the flow of migrants.
He says his teams try to spot the people smugglers’ boats with radar and regular patrols, but all too often they arrive on the scene to find bodies, not survivors.
“We find a lot of migrant bodies of all nationalities: Tunisians and other Africans. We see elderly, we see young, we even see babies,” he says. “This affects my teams.”
Mbarki says that even when his teams catch migrants, once released they often try to make the crossing again.
“No matter how much you train or what equipment you have, if you do not cure the deep causes of the illegal migration, then this will just continue,” he says.
A continental draw
Migrants flood into Tunisia from across Africa, often working for years to save enough money to pay the people smugglers.
When authorities in Libya clamped down on migration routes and smuggling syndicates there, Tunisia became a more attractive through-point, officials here say.
And because Tunisian smuggling rings are more decentralized, they are harder to stop, according to Herbert. Increasingly, both Tunisian and other African migrants are even smuggling themselves.
“This route is the best way,” says Deborah, an Ivorian migrant who asked CNN to use an assumed name because of fears for her safety. “Here in Tunisia, it is bad, we live illegally. When we get to Europe we will live illegally too. But the conditions will be better, we have no liberty here.”
Deborah hopes to make the crossing to Europe with her four-month-old daughter by saving up to use a smuggler.
While young men used to be the most common demographic making the journey, now entire families are trying to reach Europe, in the hope that their children will be given asylum.
Deborah meets us in a thicket of scrub near the beach where she and her daughter are hiding with four other migrants, afraid of alerting Tunisian authorities.
She works as a maid, the other adults as laborers. Their work leaves them in a precarious position – one of the migrants says their Tunisian bosses can cut off their contracts without paying them.
None of them can swim.
“Often I’m afraid, but sometimes I am not afraid because I see the problems I am going through,” says Deborah, “When I see our future in my dreams, my fears vanish.”
She says that Ukrainian migrants are let into Europe more freely because they are European.
Bin Omar, from the Tunisian NGO, is more direct: “Political systems still look at humans based on their color, gender, religion and ethnicity and don’t look at them as people who are entitled to the same rights and at the same level.”
A modest protest
Outside the IOM’s compound in the Tunisian capital, Tunis, a group of about 50 asylum seekers from several African nations try to find a spot in the shade. Many of them have been here for months, waiting for help from the IOM.
Multiple CNN attempts, by phone and email, to reach out to the IOM in Tunisia failed, as did knocking on the door of the compound.
Abuboker Juma sleeps on a mattress laid out under a tree nearby and tries to make a living selling materials plastic bottles for recycling.
Originally from Darfur in Sudan, he says his family was attacked during the genocide there; several of his relatives died and the rest of the family scattered.
Juma fled to Libya, hoping to make it to Europe from there, but got caught up in Libya’s civil war and ended up in a series of detention camps.
Now he’s in Tunis, desperate for somewhere safer to sleep, and something to eat.
“As far as I know, refugees are all the same and are supposed to be treated equally, but somehow, I have a gut feeling that the UN is only made for European guys I think,” says Juma.
For those left behind in Tunisia, the wait and the search are agonizing.
Samia Jabloun banded together with other mothers of missing sons to try to agitate for help. Together, they have protested at the foreign ministry and pleaded for help from the Tunisian government. Sometimes they get a hearing, but they have yet to see any results.
Last year, Samia traveled to Italy with some of the other mothers to try to find Fadi. She has reached out to Tunisian and Italian NGOs for help, asking them to look for him in prisons and morgues. So far, there is no trace of him.
“I hate El Harka,” she says, using the local term for illegal migration, “I don’t encourage people to go. The mother suffers when the son goes. The mother suffers a lot.”
Despite everything, Samia is convinced that Fadi is still alive somewhere. Photos of him are dotted throughout her house, near the harbor he left in that small boat.
She often passes by a mural with a striking painting of her son next to a map of Tunisia.
Every night, she says, he visits her in her dreams. “When I am asleep, I always see him. He says to me: ‘My mother, I am not dead. I am alive, wait for me, I will arrive, I will arrive.’”