Thousands of Tunisians Are Attempting the “Harga”

31 October, 2022


Sarah Ben Hamadi


On Octo­ber 19, 2022, a four-year-old Tunisian girl arrived on the island of Lampe­dusa in Italy, alone, on a clan­des­tine migra­tion boat. Yes, you read that right, she is only four years old and she arrived on the Ital­ian coast unac­com­pa­nied after a cross­ing of more than 24 hours. There are no words to describe the sit­u­a­tion. Images of the girl, filmed dis­creet­ly on Ital­ian tele­vi­sion with­out show­ing her face, shocked the whole country.

Back in Tunisia, arrest­ed by the author­i­ties, the father claims that he too was sup­posed to leave with his wife and his oth­er daugh­ter, who is sev­en, but said that they stayed on the beach where the boat depart­ed hasti­ly in a moment of pan­ic. The par­ents were tak­en into cus­tody for “aban­don­ment of a minor.”

While the media and pub­lic opin­ion on social net­works argued about parental respon­si­bil­i­ty, I could­n’t get those painful ques­tions out of my head: What is hap­pen­ing in my coun­try? How did we get here? Why do we pre­fer to risk death in makeshift boats than to stay in Tunisia? I admit that I don’t have any answers, as the sit­u­a­tion is infu­ri­at­ing­ly complex.

Syn­ony­mous with social fail­ure and heart­break, the “har­ga” (a term refer­ring to ille­gal immi­gra­tion in Tunisian dialect — lit­er­al­ly burn­ing in Eng­lish — in ref­er­ence to the fact of burn­ing one’s papers in order not to be deport­ed to one’s coun­try of ori­gin) has become a life project, even a fam­i­ly project at times.

The “bam­bi­na” affair is just one of many dra­mas this autumn. The same week, the Tunisian coast guard recov­ered the bod­ies of 15 migrants of dif­fer­ent nation­al­i­ties, off the coast of Mah­dia (200km from Tunis). A few days ear­li­er, a sweep off the coast of Zarzis (a coastal town in south­ern Tunisia) recov­ered eight bod­ies, which could be those of peo­ple who dis­ap­peared at sea on Sep­tem­ber 21 and whose fam­i­lies have been wait­ing for news ever since. This is not the first time and cer­tain­ly won’t be the last that such a tragedy has occurred — except that this time around, bod­ies have been exhumed. They were buried with­out their fam­i­lies being informed. Accused of neg­li­gence, the author­i­ties are strug­gling to con­tain the anger of res­i­dents and fam­i­lies of the miss­ing migrants. Roads in Zarzis were closed and tires were burned. Fish­er­men mobi­lized vol­un­tar­i­ly for days to search for the bod­ies at sea. A one-day gen­er­al strike was observed.

The Mediter­ranean has become a road of death, and Tunisia a ceme­tery of hope.



In 2022 alone, 15,395 ille­gal migrants reached the Ital­ian coast, accord­ing to the NGO Tunisian Forum for Eco­nom­ic and Social Rights (FTDES), Among them, were some 2,000 minors and near­ly 600 women. “We went from 73 women in 2019 to near­ly 600 in 2022,” says Islam Ghar­bi, mem­ber of FTDES. The cause is Tunisi­a’s high unem­ploy­ment rate and finan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties. Accord­ing to the same NGO, “more than 540 ille­gal immi­grants have gone miss­ing since the begin­ning of 2022.”

And despite the recur­rent dra­mas, these clan­des­tine depar­tures have become com­mon­place. Entire fam­i­lies leave at their own risk, and some hara­gas (ille­gal immi­grants) have begun to film and share their cross­ings on social net­works. This new phe­nom­e­non is per­haps as sur­pris­ing as it is deplorable. In 2021, an 18-year-old Insta­gram­mer, who had near­ly 200 thou­sand fol­low­ers at the time, pub­lished a video of her cross­ing to Italy, delight­ed to have suc­ceed­ed. She turned the per­ilous jour­ney by boat into a banal Insta­gram­ma­ble cross­ing. Placed in a deten­tion cen­ter, the girl con­tin­ued to pub­lish sto­ries of her dai­ly life, which she attempt­ed to glamorize.

Tunisian direc­tor Las­saad Oues­lati on the set of “Har­ga” in the sum­mer of 2020 (pho­to Lil­ia Blaise).

Aware of ille­gal immigration’s increas­ing mag­ni­tude, in 2020 Tunisian nation­al tele­vi­sion pro­duced a soap opera called sim­ply “Har­ga.” Broad­cast for two sea­sons, the series dwells on the rea­sons that push Tunisians to attempt the har­ga, as well as the restric­tive migra­to­ry poli­cies of Euro­pean coun­tries, and the dif­fi­cul­ties ille­gal migrants encounter in Europe…when they do not lose their lives at sea.

With “Har­ga” direc­tor Las­saad Oues­lati want­ed to address a phe­nom­e­non that has become “almost com­mon­place.” Beyond the finan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties, he found “a loss of attach­ment of young peo­ple to their country.”

Inter­viewed in Le Monde, Oues­lati said, “I had to make this series because this issue effects us all on a dai­ly basis. Every Tunisian has in his entourage some­one who has emi­grat­ed ille­gal­ly. To cre­ate the char­ac­ters and a real­is­tic decor, I went to Sici­ly with my pro­duc­er and we met many Tunisians in an irreg­u­lar sit­u­a­tion, whether in deten­tion cen­ters, hotspots [reg­is­tra­tion points for migrants upon arrival in Europe], or in the streets. I also con­duct­ed inter­views with the fam­i­lies of near­ly 500 peo­ple who dis­ap­peared at sea and whose rel­a­tives have nei­ther the bod­ies nor proof that they died.”

A wide­spread malaise

If ille­gal immi­gra­tion has often been per­ceived as a prob­lem affect­ing the poor, mar­gin­al­ized fringe of soci­ety, Tunisia is now fac­ing anoth­er phe­nom­e­non, a brain drain, for in the midst of the socio-eco­nom­ic cri­sis that has per­sist­ed since the 2011 rev­o­lu­tion, mid­dle class Tunisians are flock­ing abroad through legal chan­nels as well.

A Sep­tem­ber 2022 gath­er­ing in Zarzis hon­ors Tunisians dis­ap­peared at sea (pho­to Mau­rice Stierl).

“And you, why are you stay­ing?” “Don’t you want to leave?” “What is keep­ing you here?” These ques­tions are now part of most dis­cus­sions. Every week, we hear about a per­son, a cou­ple or even a fam­i­ly in our cir­cle of friends who drops every­thing to go abroad, often to France, Ger­many or Canada.

Among those who emi­grate are indi­vid­u­als who seemed to have a com­fort­able sit­u­a­tion here in Tunisia. First of all, there are the doc­tors, whose depar­ture is caus­ing such a hem­or­rhage that the Fran­co-Ger­man chan­nel Arte devot­ed a report to it, titled “Tunisia: The great exo­dus of doc­tors.” Each year, near­ly a thou­sand doc­tors leave for France, a coun­try that is itself expe­ri­enc­ing a short­age and which there­fore ben­e­fits from these depar­tures. High­ly trained and mas­ter­ing the lan­guage of Molière, Tunisian doc­tors do not find it dif­fi­cult to work for French hos­pi­tals. Engi­neers are not left out, either: between 2015 and 2021, 39,000 engi­neers left the coun­try, accord­ing to the Pres­i­dent of the Tunisian Engi­neers’ Coun­cil.

While Tunisia can pride itself on the fact that many young peo­ple are well edu­cat­ed, these mas­sive depar­tures reveal a gen­er­al malaise in the coun­try and a par­tic­u­lar­ly deep malaise felt by our youth. This is a cri­sis that the state is fail­ing to react to, either out of denial or insuf­fi­cient vision. For if ille­gal immi­gra­tion can some­times reflect a lack of prospects, the mas­sive depar­tures through reg­u­lar chan­nels show that the rea­sons are not always finan­cial. Between dis­en­chant­ment and uncer­tain­ty, Tunisians now find it dif­fi­cult to believe in a bet­ter future in their coun­try, for them­selves or for their children.

In his nov­el The Dis­ori­ent­ed, Amin Maalouf wrote, “The dis­ap­pear­ance of the past is easy to con­sole one­self with; it is the dis­ap­pear­ance of the future that one does not recov­er from. The coun­try whose absence sad­dens and obsess­es me is not the one I knew in my youth, it is the one I dreamed of, and which could nev­er see the light of day.” Maalouf’s nos­tal­gia may evoke his native Lebanon, once torn by war, but to me it calls to mind Tunisia today. For many of us who once expe­ri­enced the hope of rev­o­lu­tion in Jan­u­ary 2011, dis­il­lu­sion­ment has char­ac­ter­ized much of the decade that followed. 

This was to have been a decade we expect­ed would be suf­fi­cient to estab­lish a democ­ra­cy and get back on the road to devel­op­ment, but which has turned out to be chaot­ic, as suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments have failed to pro­vide the slight­est solu­tion to the coun­try’s struc­tur­al prob­lems. Worse, these prob­lems have accu­mu­lat­ed, and today we find our­selves wracked by an eco­nom­ic cri­sis along with polit­i­cal insta­bil­i­ty. Young Tunisians — who after the renewed pride of belong­ing to what was described as “the only Arab democ­ra­cy” — now find them­selves in a sit­u­a­tion where the coun­try rep­re­sents in their eyes only obsta­cles and difficulties.

I remain con­vinced that the coun­try has a lot of poten­tial and that there are still things to do here. Tunisia can be turned around if it is put in the right hands. Now, with this dis­en­chant­ment, one can­not help but won­der about our future. What if noth­ing changes? What if the sit­u­a­tion gets even worse? What if I aspire to some­thing bet­ter? These are legit­i­mate ques­tions in this gloomy atmosphere. 

There is a say­ing mak­ing its way around social net­works late­ly: “We love you, Tunisia, but you have made it very dif­fi­cult.” I think that sums up the state of mind that many of us are in.

Tunisia is hem­or­rhag­ing hara­gas, which has me wor­ry­ing first about the prob­lem of the infringe­ment on the right to mobil­i­ty, and all the restric­tions imposed by the coun­tries of the north­ern shore of the Mediter­ranean. These peo­ple choose clan­des­tine migra­tion because it is impos­si­ble for them to leave via reg­u­lar chan­nels, even for a tourist trip. Sec­ond­ly, there is a feel­ing of sad­ness mixed with help­less­ness. To see peo­ple so des­per­ate that they would rather risk their lives at sea than stay here is painful. And to observe that the state man­ages this prob­lem only from a secu­ri­ty angle, unable to find a solu­tion, is revolt­ing. Even if one is in a com­fort­able sit­u­a­tion, you can­not be insen­si­tive to this crisis.

It is time to sit down and ana­lyze what is going on: Yes, there is a great social malaise. How to rem­e­dy it and give hope to these young peo­ple and to for­lorn fam­i­lies? How can we give them con­fi­dence in their coun­try again, and demon­strate that the grass is per­haps not green­er else­where? How to make them dream at home? A whole strat­e­gy must be put in place. 


Sarah Ben Hamadi is a renowned blogger and has collaborated with various international media. Her writing focuses on societal and cultural issues in her country, Tunisia, and in the Arab world. Active in nonprofits, she was a board member of the think tank Le Labo Démocratique, and a member of the Tunisian Pact. She is a communications director based in Tunis and tweets @Sarah_bh.

brain drainhargaillegal immigrationMediterraneanmigrantsTunisia


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