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  • Writer's pictureDamian Berger

Harka – Is it Tunisia’s Season of the Migration to the North?

Ali shivers from desperation. As an illegal petty petrol dealer, he sleeps on a construction site, lives from hand to mouth. Years of modest savings depleted by a family emergency, the boat to Europe no longer affordable. In front of the local governorate, Ali lights himself on fire. Ali is fictitious, and yet very real. Played by up-and-coming actor Adam Bessa, Ali’s tragedy touches thousands of Tunisians on the cinema screens across the country. A cinematic phenomenon, the movie “Harka” transplaces the story of streetseller Mohammed Bouazizi – whose self-inflammation ignited the Arab Spring in 2011 – into today’s Tunisia. In Tunisian Arabic, “Harka” has two meanings. It can either mean “illegal migration”, or “burning”. The message is loud and clear: As Tunisia is approaching pre-revolutionary levels of economic hardship, young people either emigrate, or (both metaphorically and psychologically) burn out from desperation. Many choose the former, leading to alarming numbers of irregular migration in the first weeks of 2023. This article sheds light onto the phenomenon of Harka in Tunisia, singles out some of the push-factors responsible for it, and ventures an outlook of some possible solutions.

Democracy and Economic Development – A Painful Awakening

The fact that a film like “Harka” – overtly and directly criticizing government corruption, malpractice, and incompetence – is screened and streamed all over the country, is a testimony for the achievements of the Tunisian Jasmin Revolution in 2010/11. The post-revolutionary period witnessed swift and comprehensive improvements in the field of political and civil liberties, amongst other things giving rise to a comparatively healthy and diverse media landscape with a vibrant political debate culture[1]. On comparative terms – and notwithstanding significant backsliding since President Kais Saied’s power grab in 2021 – Tunisia remains the freest Arab state in the region[2]. Yet despite free media, civil liberties, and largely free and fair elections, Tunisia’s parliamentary election just broke the lamentable record for the lowest turnout in any North African election with participation rate being only 11.3%. Some of this outcome must be attributed to many parties boycotting the election in protest over significant electoral amendments. Much of it, however, must be attributed to the simple fact that in the face of the country’s worst economic crisis, many Tunisians just couldn’t care less.

Hit hard by the Covid 19 crisis and the effects of the Ukraine war, the Tunisian economy has recently been caught up in a dangerous downward spiral. For some months now, the continuous price increases have been joined by serious supply bottlenecks, especially for basic goods such as milk, sugar, pasta, butter, and coffee. Purchase quantities have long been limited to just a few products per customer, and empty shelves are not uncommon. Even neighboring Libya, a country plagued by a decade of civil war, recently stepped in with aid deliveries to the south of Tunisia[3]. State subsidies for energy and basic goods are helplessly fighting consumer price inflation, and by doing so they are sacrificing the national budget to social peace. The result: Tunisia’s debt amounts to almost 90 % of gross domestic product, and people are increasingly struggling to make ends meet.

One of the most heated and controversially discussed theories of comparative politics is the so-called “democracy dividend”, essentially postulating a significant and positive relationship between democracy and economic growth in a country. Democracies, it is estimated, achieve about 7% higher GDP per capita 12 years after the transition from authoritarian regimes[4]. Many Tunisians – although hardly aware of the theory itself – indeed expected democratization to bring about economic growth, as post-revolution polls suggested[5]. Yet today, twelve years after the ousting of Zinedabdine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s GDP per capita is around 10% lower than before the revolution[6]. In other words, democracy has not paid off for Tunisians so far. The “democracy-dividend” many Tunisians had hoped for, completely failed to materialize and, accordingly, interest in and even support for democracy are dwindling away. The 2022/23 parliamentary election turnout speaks volumes to this, as does the relative indifference, with which many Tunisians encounter their president’s increasingly authoritarian politics. In the face of economic desperation, Tunisia’s youth is turning towards Europe.

Clandestine Migration on the Rise

Tunisia’s proximity to Italy has rendered it a prime point of departure for illegal migrants to attempt the burdensome crossing of the Mediterranean. Hence, Tunisia has traditionally been a transit country for sub-Saharan migrants. This process was accelerated in the wake of the various recent political crises in Africa. Tunisians themselves, however, seldomly joined the perilous endeavor. Until recently. Since 2020, the numbers of Tunisian emigrants are skyrocketing. In 2022 alone, over 16’000 illegal Tunisian migrants crossed by boat to Italy, while more than 500 died trying. For reference, in 2019 only 2592 did so[7]. These numbers are matched by an equal number of Tunisians choosing the Balkan route, profiting from visa-free entry to Turkyie and (until recently) Serbia. Even more worrying than the sheer numbers of migrants is their socio-economically diverse profile. Illegal migrants are no longer solely the young, poor, and unemployed, but increasingly also workers, educated, and even public employees[8]. “Harka” has become a phenomenon of the middle class.

For those who make it across the pond, the legal procedures following their arrival in Italy (or elsewhere) are all but smooth sailing. The European Agenda for Migration in 2015 designated so-called reception-hotspots to identify immigrants newly arrived to the Schengen-area. The overwhelming majority of Tunisians are being identified at Lampedusa hotspot, an infamous reception center under investigation by the European Court of Human Rights for several conduct violations[9]. Italy considers Tunisia a safe country of origin, a fact that, while permitting faster and more efficient procedures, severely impedes Tunisian migrant’s international protection and their chances of entry to Italy. Upon arrival to Lampedusa, the very first form may already determine their future. Asked to provide their reason to enter Italy, many readily tick the pre-made box “I want to work”, even if other factors are prevalent[10]. This, in turn, automatically renders them ‘economic migrants’ destined to be rejected from Schengen-access and repatriated. Such rejections typically result in a 5-year ban to enter the Schengen area, as well as in some cases even persecution by the Tunisian judiciary. The majority of Tunisians sooner or later end up being repatriated, where an increasing percentage is desperate enough to try again.

Saied’s Migration Politics – the Strategy of not Coming up with a Strategy

The administration Kais Saied – caught up in a tedious struggle for power and a seething legitimacy crisis – has clearly no strategy vis-à-vis the staggering numbers of Tunisian migrants. On the contrary, Saied is anxiously spreading conspiracy theories framing ‘Harka’ as a political ploy by the opposition to put pressure on his administration. Tunisia’s current approach to curbing the emigration of Tunisia’s “misguided youth” (Saied[11]) is almost exclusively security centered. In close cooperation with the French and Italian authorities, the Tunisian coastguard has become the ringbearer of Saied’s denial to mitigate migration by its roots. In the first 9 months of 2022 alone, the Tunisian coastguards prevented 23’517 people from crossing to Italy by boat[12]. In addition to this rigid border regime, the Tunisian government is cooperating with Italy on two fixed repatriation flights per week with around 80 nationals on board[13]. For a fear of political repercussions, these flights are generally diverted away from the big airports of Tunis and Sfax towards more rural and marginalized Enfidha and Tabarka. Hence, Tunisia’s current migration strategy is best summarized as ‘hide and ignore’. Considering the acceleration of the magnitude and the political dimension of emigration in the last months, this approach is deemed to fail in 2023. In order to prevent ‘Harka’ from becoming the dominant term of Tunisia’s political year, two approaches must be pursued, and they must be pursued fast.

Two Avenues for Mitigating Clandestine Migration in 2023

First, the most obvious and straightforward way to mitigate clandestine migration is by creating efficient, comprehensive, and demand-oriented legal migration schemes. On his visit to Tunis earlier this year, Italian minister of foreign affairs Antonio Tajani announced the augmentation of working visa quotas for Tunisians to disincentivize illegal crossings[14]. While this is certainly a step forward, regular labor migration must be approached in a more holistic way that accounts for more than the mere lessening of entry restrictions. This, in turn, first and foremost necessitates a shift of paradigm towards thinking about labor migration from Tunisia towards Europe (and back) as a mutually beneficial exchange, rather than a politically contingent bargaining chip. Tunisia has extensive human capital resources ready to mitigate Europe’s encroaching manual skills shortage. Such demand-adept labor mobility not only combats clandestine migration, but also relieves pressure from the Tunisian labor market with its 40% youth unemployment[15] and, through migrant’s remittances and investments, contributes to economic development at home. However, demand-adept labor mobility is a complex endeavor that necessarily requires a harmonized recognition of qualifications and legal procedures, as well as language and cultural assistance. Some European development cooperation strategies have recently turned towards such ‘triple win’ (for migrants, country of origin, and host country; UN term) approaches, most notably the EU-funded THAMM (Towards a Holistic Approach to labor Migration Governance and Labor Mobility in North Africa) program between Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, and Germany[16]. The political struggle to incorporate and convert such schemes into national migration strategies will be one of the key challenges to Tunisian policymakers in the years to come.

Second, and most importantly, mitigating clandestine migration is a matter of managing push-factors. For Tunisia, this means first and foremost economic recovery. Faced with a staggering national debt, the country is desperately seeking financial relief through international donors. Long-promised loans from the Gulf monarchies failed to materialize, and the soon-to-be finalized deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has become President Saied’s last hope of preventing disaster. The reforms attached to the much-needed financial relief – including reducing the public sector and reforming the inefficient subsidies system – are certainly a precondition for Tunisian economic recovery in the mid- and long-term. They are, however, very likely to increase hardship for already hard-hit lower and middle classes in the short term, as cuts in energy and fuel subsidies will further raise the cost of living at a time when inflation is bound to reach double digits again in 2023. Just like in many MENA states, food and energy subsidies constitute an unofficial but politically sensitive social contract between the government and the people. Any previous attempts abolish the subsidy regime were met with fierce popular resistance. Unsurprisingly, the yet-to-be finalized IMF reform measure are already facing sizable opposition from Tunisia's powerful labor syndicates, above all the Union Générale des Travailleurs Tunisiens (UGTT), whose clear positioning is often indicative for political tensions in the country[17]. Most recently, it has repeatedly warned of serious social repercussions if consumer prices do not fall again. With historical reference, this is by no means an empty threat, since the UGTT may well bring about such social repercussions itself through its consolidated political weight and its capacities for mass mobilization. In 2023, Tunisia will thus witness a President Kais Saied haggling with the UGTT and other unions over the implementation of economic reform measures. If IMF-reforms are implemented, Tunisian workers and consumers will pay the price for the light at the end of the tunnel. If reforms are stalled by strike actions and the fading legitimacy for Kais Saied’s political project, costly and ineffective subsidies and trade protections will continue to cushion the blows to lower incomes, but Tunisia’s chronic problems will render it even more vulnerable to economic shocks in the future. Eighter way, push-factors for clandestine migration are likely to persist well into 2023 and quite possibly beyond.

Damian Berger is Managing Partner of Ishtar MENA Analytics and our Senior Analyst for the Maghreb Region. He studied in Zurich, Rabat and London, and his current work focuses on questions of urbanism, migration, and food security. Damian lives and works in Tunis.


[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] E.g.: IRI Tunisia Public Opinion Poll May 2011, Salem, Massachusetts [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13] [14] Ibid. [15] [16] [17]

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