In Tunisia, families of missing persons in Hansha struggle to find them Immigration news

The families of 37 Tunisians from Hancha near Sfax, who were lost at sea, have organized a protest to the capital over what they say is official silence regarding their missing relatives.

Relatives of the missing persons, who range in age from 13 to 35, said they received phone calls from family members on the boat at around 2:30 p.m. on January 11.

However, by 10pm, all communications were lost.

The boat has been missing since then.

“The whole Hansha is miserable.”

Following the disappearance, the Tunisian Coast Guard conducted extensive searches, supported by teams from Italy and Malta.

But the search appears to have stalled, with the last official comment on the issue coming via a press release in mid-January.

Fatima Jalil, whose 25-year-old brother Ali disappeared, was among the families who traveled to the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists in Tunis on Tuesday, in an attempt to bypass officials and take their case directly to the media.

“No one from the government contacted us,” says Fatima Jalil, whose 25-year-old brother Ali is among the missing.

“The whole district is miserable,” she told an interpreter. “All you hear on the street are questions about news or rumours. Everyone you meet is hollow-eyed.

Families of people from Hansha in the Tunisian state of Sfax who were lost at sea during illegal migration attempts, raise photos and banners demanding that the government support efforts to find out what happened to their relatives.
The families submitted their demands to Tunisia on February 6, 2024 (Fathi Belaid/AFP)

“Our mothers are sick. We are constantly checking their blood pressure and sugar levels. They are devastated.

“It will be about a month since the boat disappeared,” she said. “We have received some tips here and there, but we do most of the work ourselves. We do the investigations that the police are supposed to do,” she said.

Ali was one of thousands of Tunisians who made their way without papers through one of the most dangerous migration routes in the world.

His brother Mohamed said he was unable to get regular work at home, and his last job was as a night security guard in Sfax, about 50 kilometers away, which left him with barely enough money to buy coffee and cigarettes.

Rumors

In the absence of official information, a variety of theories take hold among information-hungry residents desperate for news of family members.

Relatives have denied rumors that the boat may have sunk off Kerkennah Island, near Sfax, the main departure point for irregular migration in the country, due to a lack of evidence.

Other theories, such as that the boat may have been diverted to Greece, have been investigated and rejected by the Hansha families.

Likewise, Tunisians in Italy have gone so far as to hire lawyers to work with authorities in inspecting detention centers where irregular arrivals are often held.

A woman digs through garbage in Kasserine, Tunisia
Poverty, police brutality and lack of opportunities have made life difficult for many Tunisians (File: Riad Dridi/AP Photo)

Contacted by Al Jazeera – he stressed he had no knowledge of the case – Italian prosecutor Salvatore Villa, who deals extensively with illegal immigration, said it was unlikely that the missing Tunisians had reached Italy.

“Usually, the first thing Tunisians do when they arrive is to call their families,” he said. He said that their failure to do so does not bode well.

For the Hanasha families – who refuse to accept the possibility that their relatives may have been lost at sea – Libya, some 320 kilometers (200 miles) away, remains an increasingly tantalizing prospect.

Armed gangs from western Libya have long trafficked in the labor of captured refugees, often intercepting convoys of undocumented black migrants as they seek to cross into the country and bringing them to detention centers where reports suggest their conditions verge on the Middle Ages.

Ali Bouzreba, the deputy of the Libyan coastal city of Zawiya, told the Italian news agency Nova that no boats from Tunisia arrived in the area in the days following the departure of the Hansha boat, saying that the seas were particularly rough at that time.

In addition, Bozreba said he contacted the head of the maritime department of the Libyan Stability Support Service who also had no information about the missing boat.

Migrants traveling on a metal boat as the Tunisian Coast Guard spotted them at sea while trying to cross into Italy.
Refugees trying to cross into Italy on metal boats are spotted by the Tunisian Coast Guard off Sfax, Tunisia, April 27, 2023 (Jihad Obaidlawi/Reuters)

Silence

Majdi Karbai, a member of parliament in contact with the Hanasha families, told Al Jazeera that the silence of the Tunisian authorities on this issue was due to the nature of official Tunisian authority, as well as concern about the implications of any statement.

“They don’t talk to citizens, they don’t talk to the press. “Their concern is that this could lead to a repeat of previous unrest in Zarzis,” he added, referring to the unrest that followed the loss of a boat carrying 17 Tunisians from the small southern town two years ago, which eventually became a national incident. .

“Families have the idea that as long as there are no bodies, their relatives are alive.”

On the phone from Hansha, Fatima is still angry.

“We need the government’s help and the Interior Ministry’s help,” she said of the department generally responsible for the search.

“All we got was a phone number to call when we heard news from our sources. That’s what we do: call the police ourselves to say our kids might be in a certain place.

“We need to know where our flowers are,” she said, referring to her term for missing passengers. “We need our government to do its job and look for our precious children. We are devastated.”

More than 97,000 people crossed the Mediterranean from Tunisia to Italy in 2023, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, most of them crossing Tunisia from sub-Saharan Africa. Of these, at least 2,500 people are believed to have died.

The real number is likely much higher.

(Tags for translation) News

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