Tunisians Find New Road to Europe in the Balkans

Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

On June 10, 2022, 23-year-old Omar left Tataouine in the hopes of reaching Paris. But since France, like other European countries, offers few visas to Tunisians, Omar’s journey would have to follow an irregular path. While hundreds of thousands have tried in the last decade to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean sea—with thousands dying in the process—Omar took the Balkan Road, a new migration path that’s seen a huge influx of Tunisians.

The first leg of his journey: Istanbul via airplane. Because he’s under 35, Tunisian border police at airports often require parental permits for those traveling to Turkey, Morocco, Algeria and Libya (something human rights groups have criticized).

“In the beginning, my father signed my parental permit that enabled me to travel. Then I booked a ticket to Istanbul, Turkey, before going to Serbia, the most important stop in this journey,” Omar told Meshkal. Turkey and Serbia are two of only 38 countries in the world where Tunisian-passport holders can travel without visas.

“It was not easy to get to Serbia. Although they do not require a visa for Tunisians, the Serbian authorities are very strict in dealing with us. I also had to pay a bribe to a border official at Istanbul airport to allow me to pass,” he said.

Omar spent one night in a hotel in the capital, Belgrade, before boarding the bus towards the Serbian-Hungarian border, accompanied by four other people from Tataouine, who he said were united by a desire to “improve their financial conditions and find a decently paid job.”

A photo sent to Meshkal by a Tataouine local migrating to Western Europe through Serbia in March 2022 showing their camping ground in the woods in Serbia.

In the town of Subotica, Omar was met with an unwelcome surprise. He had heard from others who made the trip only two weeks before that smugglers there charged 3000 Euros to get people across the border into Hungary and up to the Hungarian Austrian border. But perhaps because of high demand, the price was up to 3800 Euros when he arrived. He told Meshkal that he reluctantly agreed to the new price because it was too late to back down and he did not want to return empty-handed after all his suffering.

Looking for Better Jobs

Omar’s journey is just one of the thousands like it by young people from Tataouine who risked death and arrest to pursue their dream in Europe after they lost hope of building a better future in their country, which is struggling to survive a severe economic crisis. Although Tataouine is rich in hydrocarbon resources, the wealth of these resources have been extracted with very little reinvested into development and the region has extremely high unemployment.

Some of Tataouine’s issues date back a long way, according to journalist and anthropologist Mohamed Bettaieb—himself originally from Tataouine.

“Historically, since the Husseinid era, the State was not really present in Tataouine except through its official representatives…and some local campaigns to collect taxes. Throughout the [French] colonial era, it was designated as a military zone not subject to the French civil public residence,” Bettaieb said. “As a result of all this, the region, has always been an area of ​​migrations towards the fertile north, towards the capital, and Libya, and especially towards Europe since the 1960s…for purely economic reasons.”

But more recent developments are also making Tataouine’s fragile economic situation worse, according to Bettaieb. War in neighboring Libya over the last decade, where many from Tataouine used to work, is one factor. Restrictions on trade at the Tunisia-Libya border have also made things worse, and the local animal herding economy has been hurt by surging prices and shortages in animal feed. He said these have all fed into the increased pace of emigration in search of jobs. They have also helped feed protest movements targeting the oil companies operating in the desert of the Tataouine governorate.

Clashes with the State

The Kamour movement began in April 2017, when demonstrators launched a sit-in at the Kamour oil and gas pumping station in Tataouine’s desert demanding State investment and employment. Demonstrators called for development and for the region to benefit from oil and natural gas revenues. While they won concessions from authorities in the form of a signed agreement, the government has so far not followed through on most of its promises in the agreement, prompting continued protests.

The State’s lack of implementation of the agreement created a clear rift between the central and regional authorities and the protesters, especially in the points related to the operation of the Environment Company. The “Bounoud.tn” website, which monitors implementation of the Kamour agreement, indicated that only 50 percent has been completed on the ground, while 21 percent of the measures stipulated in the agreement are still in the process of being implemented.

Bechir Chibani (no relation to author), an expert in development policies, believes that the wave of migration through Serbia is closely related to the failure to implement the parts of the Kamour Agreement which would have had an impact on reducing unemployment, especially the creation of the Development and Investment Fund, and the study relating to five semi-public companies in the oil and gas sector.

Chibani added that rather than the problem being absolute poverty, many young people in Tataouine feel despair at the failure of successive government to be serious about meeting their promises of local development. Chibani pointed to the high cost of migrating through irregular routes like the Balkan one, noting that many who migrate do so to make more money and send them back as remittances—something previous generations also did.

Chibani also said that there is credible speculation currently in Tataouine that the latest wave of emigration might be tolerated by local authorities and oil companies who opposed the Kamour sit-in and don’t want to see another flare up that might block oil production again, especially in light of the global energy crisis after the Russian-Ukrainian war. He added that “facilitating” the current wave of migration would empty the region of its youth and reduce the possibility of the emergence of new protest movements.

While Europe has adopted extremely restrictive immigration policies, Chibani said that European countries and especially France will benefit from this surge in emigration which will bring them a supply of young workers to support local production needs, helping them weather the current crisis.  Already many trained Tunisian workers have emigrated, contributing to a brain drain, with a national survey on migration carried out by the National Institute of Statistics revealing that 39,000 Tunisian engineers and 3,300 Tunisian doctors left the country from 2015 to 2020.

Conflicting Numbers

Determining the number of migrants from Tataouine who have made the Balkan route crossing is difficult given the absence of an accurate and reliable field survey. On August 20, sociology professor Dr. Mohamed Nejib Boutaleb stated during a lecture organized by the Library Lovers Association that, according to his own studies, the number of immigrants to Serbia in the first half of 2022 is approximately 12,000.

But others suggested these numbers may be a big underestimation. An informed source from the municipality of Tataouine told Meshkal that the number of parental permits for travel signed in the municipality of Tataouine alone during the first nine months of 2022 exceeded 5000. The same source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, added that most of the permits were signed between the six months from January to June 2022, while July and August saw a slight decrease.

According to the European Border and Coast Guard Agency Frontex, they found over 60,000 people crossing the Western Balkan route in 2021, more than double the number in 2020.

According to a May 10, 2021 report by the Swiss-based organization Global Initiative, illicit businesses moving people from Serbia to Hungary via Romania generate an estimated 8.5 to 10 million Euros.

Community Solidarity to Fund Travel

Several migrants told Meshkal that a single journey costs between 4,000 and 7,500 Euros just to pay smugglers. The most famous of whom is the Al-Kazawi, allegedly a Moroccan smuggler who runs an active Facebook page where he presents the most important statistics on the travel routes he organizes.

But getting Euros is tough for Tunisians who face State-imposed currency restrictions. Tunisian law does not give a traveler the right to carry more than 6000 Tunisian dinars with them annually (about 1800 Euros), which prompts migrants to look for alternative ways to pay the smugglers. Many turn to their relatives who reside in Europe to get the required Euros in return for paying them in Tunisian currency.

Omar explained that he had received a transfer of 2000 euros through Western Union from his brother-in-law who resides in Paris, and another remittance from his cousin in the amount of 1000 euros, which he withdrew in the city of Subotica and handed over the money to Kazawi to finance the “delivery” operation, a phrase that smugglers called the process of moving migrants from Serbia to Austria via Hungary.

In April 2022, Turkish Airlines wrote to Tunisian travel agencies announcing that it would not sell tickets for Tunisians to Serbia via Turkey in the future without an official travel authorization issued by the Tunisian authorities, without providing additional details of the required document.

Photo of an email sent by Turkish airlines notifying customers that those traveling from Tunis to Belgrade, Serbia via Istanbul would need a special authorization.

A number of Tataouine young people who spoke to Meshkal and chose to migrate via the Balkan route said that persuading their parents to accept their travel plans was easier compared to their previous attempts to migrate by sea.

“My father opposed my participation in one of the ‘harga’ [clandestine emigration] operations two years ago because he believed that it was dangerous and unsafe,” Sami told Meshkal. “Travel through Serbia, despite its high cost, was as smooth and orderly as for any holder of a visa that entitles him to go to the Schengen space,” he added sarcastically.

Despite the guarantees that smugglers make to travelers guaranteeing their safety, the western Balkans route has seen fatal accidents, the most recent of which resulted in the death of two young men from Tataouine, the death of two other migrants, and the injury of another man from Tataouine after a smuggler’s small car transporting 12 migrants crashed near the Hungarian-Austrian border at the beginning of September.

Sami explained that smugglers are constantly changing the itinerary and the method used to transport migrants, noting that he succeeded in crossing the border between Serbia and Hungary in the third attempt after he was asked to ride a plastic boat to cross the river.

Omar currently works in a bakery owned by one of his father’s friends in the Paris suburb of Saint Denis. Despite the long working hours and the relatively low wages (1,200 Euros per month), the man in his twenties said that he is satisfied with his decision, indicating his intention to marry a French girl he recently met to obtain legal residency documents. As for Sami, who celebrated his thirtieth birthday weeks ago, he said he is still searching for employment about a month after his settlement in Lyon.


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