Tunisia and Palestine signed two cooperation agreements on Monday, with the presence of Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui and his Palestinian counter- part Riyad Al-Maliki. The first agreements speak about the creation of a joint commission, while the second preview a strengthening partnership between the technical cooperation agencies. Foreign Minister said that the first agreement has the aim to establish a strong cooperation between the two Countries, while the second wants to prospect new opportunities for cooperation with other parties. Khemaies Jhinaoui said that the visit wants to improve bilateral relationship, in light of the visit the Palestinian President will soon make to Tunisia, and he added, during the visit, that Tunisia is close to the Palestinian people who has the right to establish an independent State.
The president of Tunisia Essebsi said, on Saturday, to Taormina, in Italy, at the presence of the bigger economies of the world, that a major engagement from public and private subjective, promised during the conference “Tunisia 2020”, and an international support to Tunisia will improve the process of reforms that the Country started. He talked about the growth of the Tunisian economy during the first trimester, and Essebsi said that this is an encouraging signal. The President of the Republic then added that Tunisian people, particularly the youths, need of work, because they are impatient to wait. The aim of the reforms is to supply, to youths, the same chances of other youths in the richest countries. The aim of Tunisian develop program is to improve exportation of high level technologies, to improve the investments and the develop of technological enterprises.
Violence to women is widespread in Tunisia. In a study by the Centre d’études, de recherches, de documentation et d’information sur la femme (Credif), published in March 20161, 53.3% of the women interviewed declared having endured at least one form of violence (psychological, physical or sexual) between 2011 and 2015. According to a 2016 Amnesty International report, it is difficult for victims to obtain help from the law, health agencies or support organisations: “Few social and medical services are designed to deal with sexual and gender-related violence and they are inadequate. Rape victims have great difficulty accessing contraceptive services, psychological support or other necessary forms of health care. Furthermore, for lack of protective measures, especially in shelters for women and girls who have suffered violence, they are exposed to more assaults.”
The notorious “article of shame” No. 227a of the Penal Code, which allowed a rapist to escape punishment by marrying his victim and which the women’s defence associations have long demanded it be repealed, was finally scrapped last March. This revision came about following an umpteenth case of abuse which deeply shocked public opinion: a judge decreed that a thirteen year-old girl would be married to a twenty-year-old man who had made her pregnant.
A BIG STEP FORWARD
Khadija Cherif is a historical figure in Tunisian society. Formerly vice-president of La Ligue des droits de l’homme, she was in line to be minister of women’s affairs in 2015, only to be rejected in the end on account of her feminism. In her opinion, law No. 60/2016 would be a big step forward in the struggle against violence to women. It is an umbrella law, and is triply complete, in that it covers the prevention of violence, the protection of the victim and the punishment of the guilty party and also stresses the importance of disseminating the principles of human rights and equality of the sexes. An active program of prevention would be set up, school programs would be made to conform with the principles of the law and gender stereotypes would be banned from the media as they are believed to encourage violence to women and discrimination against them. Professionals in direct contact with the victims—such as judges and police officers would receive special training.
Halini Jouini, a member of the steering committee of the Tunisian League of Human Rights, believes the draft law confirmed essential notions “by linking the issue of violence to women with the respect of universal human rights” and by taking account of economic violence. “A concept essential for an understanding of women’s actual situation, especially in rural areas” where life is very precarious and women are often subject to abuse.”2
A TUG-OF-WAR BETWEEN PROGRESSIVES AND CONSERVATIVES
“The examination of that law was perturbed by the political instability with a succession of six governments in as many years,” Monia Ben Jeina, prosodient of the Association tunisienne de femmes démocrates (ATFD) explains. She was one of the group of specialists who wrote the first draft of the bill under the Mehdi Jomaa government (2014-2015). At that time, the secretary of State, Neïla Caabane, was at the origin of a very ambitious draught law which located the source of gender-related violence in the practices of discrimination and was consequently aimed at doing away with all the discriminatory measures on the law books.
“In 2014, the public debate was very rich, and several cabinet members took part: the ministers of justice, education, women’s affairs, economic affairs and health,” Monia Ben Jemia remembers. That same year, at the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Tunisian Government withdrew the reservations it had formulated in 19853 , much to the chagrin of the country’s feminist associations : reservations about equality before the law, matrimonial and inheritance rights, and a mother’s right to transmit her nationality (to this day, filiation remains exclusively patrilineal).
The period seemed favourable for the passage of an umbrella law, but Neïla Chaabane who was a member of the cabinet as “an independent,” was forced to give up her struggle after the parliamentary and presidential elections of 2014 when Beji Caid Essebsi took power. “An enormous amount of work had been accomplished but the project had immediately run into many stumbling blocks,” Khadija Cherif observes. The resistance, essentially political, came from the most conservative parties like the moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, the country’s most powerful political force between 2011 and 2014, and Nidaa Tounes, the party founded by the current president.
A short time later, the draft law was revised and rewritten, then submitted to the cabinet in May 2016 by Samira Merai, Neila Chaabane’s successor as Minister of Women, Family and Children. The new minister, who could scarcely be suspected of feminism, did away with the clauses that would have upset the Islamists, such as the reforms of the Code du statut personnel (CSP) which had been in the previous version.
Reluctantly, the associations representing the civil society, when consulted, ended up rejecting the law: “We wanted this law to pass and we realised that certain measures were over-ambitious, the conservatives and the Islamists would never have approved the draft as it stood,” Monia Ben Jemia explains. In her opinion, “there are priorities which simply cannot wait, such as the creation of shelters for battered women.”
TABOOS STILL TO BE BROKEN
With this last revision, all the reforms of discriminatory measures, especially those contained in the CSP, were removed.
Promulgated by Habib Bourguiba on 13 August 1956—which became National Women’s Day in Tunisia—the CSP was a visionary text in its day. Among other things it abolished polygamy and the possibility for a husband to divorce at his sole discretion. Today, however, many legal experts accuse it of being out of date and call attention to the contradictions with the Penal Code and with the recognition of gender equality by the 2014 Constitution and the Cedaw Convention.
Concerning conjugal rape, for example, the CSP is in total contradiction with the recent legislative advances in the matter. It stipulates that sexual relations in marriage are an obligation at that once the wife’s dowry has been paid the husband may consummate the marriage. Thus the lot of a woman who has suffered conjugal rape and lodges a complaint will depend largely on the interpretation of this or that court. Similarly, inheritance procedures as defined by the Code are biased against women who are thus financially disadvantaged in comparison with their male siblings and denied the custody of their children.
“In spite of the gaps in the draft law it is vital for us to see it passed,” Khadija Cherif concludes . . . and then adds, “many men still believe it’s normal to educate their wives by beating them. So from their point of view, to admit the abusive character of violence is to endanger the family institution.”
1See French recension La violence fondée sur le genre dans l’espace public en Tunisie, 24 February 2016.
2See La violence fondée sur le genre dans l’espace public en Tunisie, op. cit., p. 33.
3To read the declaration in its entirety, see Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, UN Treaty Collection.
Many raids have been made by anti terrorist police during past days and many terror cells have been dismantled in Tunis, Bizerte, in Sahel and in the South of the Country. Terrorists in Bizarte said that they prepared a series of attacks in the same time to Tunis, in Mohammed V street. The aim of the terrorist were three buildings, the siege of Nessma TV, the siege of political party El Machrou de Mohsen Marzouk and a private school. The buildings are very close, and in the street there are many private school, the precise target hasn’t been identified. The street is one of the main important place in the city, a busy road, and it is the siege of a lot of administrative buildings.
During a workshop shall be chaired by Minister of energy, Hela Cheikhrouhou, and Minister of local affairs and of environmental, Riadh Mouakher, with the presence of the president of Energy Committee, Ameur Laârayedh, the Ministers announced an assessment study about the extraction of non-conventional hydrocarbons. Consortium is composed by two consultants from Canada and Tunisia, for a cost of 2 million of dinars. The study’ aim is to lower negative impact on the environment, during the process of extraction, then it will allow to evaluate the hydrocarbon’s reserves. Non-conventional hydrocarbons are the most difficult fossil fuels to extract, and most important non-conventional hydrocarbons are tar sands, heavy oil, shale oil.
President Essebsi warmly congratulated new President of France Emmanuel Macron. Essebsi said that his congratulation came from all Tunisian people, and that this is an encouragement to the “noble mission”. He added that election of Macron is a symbol of traditional French values: freedom, equality and fraternity. He reminded traditional relationship between the two countries, renewing the strength bilateral cooperation in all fields. President Essebsi said that with new President, France will improve its help to stabilize the Country. He then auspicated a major dialogue between Tunisia and France to fight terrorism, to stabilize Libya and Syria, to bring the Country in the hearth of interests of European Union, with the aim of build peace in the region. He added that France will help Tunisia to develop green economy, digital transition and blue economy.
Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui received the Chair of Lanzarote Committee Claude Jannizzi and he informed the Minister that Tunisia was admitted as membership to the Lanzarote Committee. This committee has the aim of protect children from sexual abuses. Foreign minister commented as positive this event, and hoped that collaborations between European institutions and Tunisian institutions will continue. The aim of this collaboration will be the stabilization of the rule of law, the efficiency of justice, public freedom, fight against corruption in Tunisia. Foreign Minister auspicated to accede at the status of observer in the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, in order to help the democratic way that Tunisia started with the revolution.
Environmental Minister, Riadh Mouakher, said that his speech was misinterpreted. During a press conference in Rome, at the end of a meeting about Tunisia, for Craxi foundation, he spoke about his origin, and talk about his experience in the United States as student. He said that when people asked him where came he from, he answered from Tunisia, a Country under Italy, because Americans thought that Algeria was a communist Country and Libya was considered a bad Country. Those words created a great deal of embarrassment in the Tunisian government, but the Minister denied that his will was to denigrate Algeria in particularly, he added that relations between two countries are very strong, and his words have been taken out of context. He added that no one can spoil relations between Algeria and Tunisia, and everybody said that nothing can ruin relationship.
The president of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People, Mohamed Ennaceur, expressed his impressions about the week of Tunisia, organized by the European Parliament. He said that this week has the aim to make raise awareness about the Country, its democratic experience, unique in the region. This visit will also grow the number of friends of Tunisia. He asked European governments to transform Tunisian debt in projects, to support the democratic transition. He requested the possibility to have structural funds for the economy, the same funds given to Countries of former Soviet Union to help their to resolve economic problems. He also asked that Tunisian students could move in Europe to improve their knowledge, if it is possible. He made a request also for Tunisian market, to open the European market to the Tunisian merchandises. He commented the visit as positive, and he added that this experience will influence European governments.
May 11, 2017 –
10 April 2017, Port of Zarzis, south of Tunisia, near the Libyan border
“The first time I saw a migrant vessel?” Anis, a fisherman from Zarzis, raises his eyebrow. He moves his hand backwards, which means a long, long time ago. “Maybe 2002 or 2003, back when illegal immigration from Libya started.” Tarek Ahmed, who owns a tuna boat, adds: “We’ve found so many corpses – when you see children entangled in your fishing nets… there’s no humanity in that.”
Over the last five days, a lot of boats have been crowding the Port of Zarzis because of a violent storm raging along the coast. Even the NGOs Jugend Rettet, Sea Watch, and MSF have dropped anchor in the small Tunisian harbour for safety reasons. A concerned José Pastor, head of missions on the Iuventa, explains: “No one sails in this weather, but as soon as the sea calms down, there’ll be a lot of boats going out at the same time”. In 2015, after seeing the umpteenth picture of dead bodies in the Mediterranean, a group of Berliners decided to launch a fundraising campaign; they repaired an old fishing boat and founded the NGO Jugend Rettet to begin their missions. “We want to show Europe that if it does nothing to put an end to this slaughter, as normal citizens we will,” says Wilco Holmes, second mate on the Iuventa.
11 April 2017, first day at sea on the Sebastian Kurz Mission
(named after the Austrian politician who accused private NGOs of collaborating with smugglers in March 2017)
Zarzis wakes up with the sun and comes back to life while our boat gets ready to sail. That same night the Libyan Coast Guard announces that a rubber dinghy has sunk within the 12 nautical miles limit: “It seems that there are around a hundred victims,” José says, knowing there is nothing he can do. But what is the 12-mile limit? “It’s the coastal area that stretches from Zuwara to Tripoli, the area from which the migrant boats usually leave,” explains Kai Kaltegärtner, captain of the Iuventa. The Libyan SAR zone, the International Search and Rescue area, begins just in front of it and spreads between 12 and 24 nautical miles, i.e. up to the limit of Libyan territorial waters. “Beyond the 12 miles, according to the non-refoulement principle, you can’t take people back against their will,” Kai clarifies, “so if we find a boat in distress beyond this limit, we cannot return its passengers to Libya and must take them to a safe and suitable place.” The harbour at Zarzis is not an option since Tunisia does not presently have any asylum law.
13 April 2017, SAR zone off Sabrata: the exodus begins
At five o’clock in the morning, a deafening siren sounds and the 16 crew members all leap out of their beds. A rubber dinghy emerges in the pale light. Maggy, the ship’s interpreter, flings herself onto the RIB–the rigid inflatable boat–with Julian and Laurah, and hands out life jackets to the 120 people on the vessel so that they can board the Iuventa.
So many heads sticking out from the orange life jackets, bare legs astride the grey boat. Smugglers always force migrants to take off their shoes so they can reduce the weight and carry more passengers. “Make sure they’re not wet with fuel!” the Spanish nurse Marina reminds everyone as the combination of petrol and water causes severe skin burns. There are just two barrels of fuel left on the keel, not even enough to cover the 24 miles of territorial waters. “These boats are not meant to go anywhere, traffickers just send these people out to their deaths, with or without NGOs,” says José Pastor, scanning the horizon with his binoculars in hand.
Daniel, with his Greek centaur’s figure, works to establish some order amidst the chaos spreading across the ship while the cry of a two-week-old baby accompanies the other 120 people coming on board. “The worst is over,” the child’s mother repeats while holding him tight as Laura, an Italian doctor, examines him. Many girls were travelling alone and got pregnant during the journey, meaning they could be victims of trade or sexual violence. A 17-year-old Nigerian girl cries uncontrollably, she just cannot stop.
It takes hours before she can look Marina in the eyes. “It’s the first time I’ve seen the light in such a long time. The first time I tried to cross the sea, the Libyan Coast Guard caught us and locked us up, they put chains around my legs and hips and then hung me by the arms,” she says, displaying the signs of torture on her body. “Libya is hell, real hell,” she keeps saying. A man is covered in dried blood. “One of the smugglers did this to me with his rifle butt,” he explains, showing the large open wound on his head.
After 5 hours of rescue operations, the Aquarius of SOS Méditerranée and MSF, the MOAS, and the Dattilo ship of the Italian Coast Guard take up the last people and set sail for Italy.
Saturday 15 April 2017, 5.30 a.m.
The sea is teeming with rubber dinghies, and there are only two small NGOs. Somalian and Eritrean boys climb aboard the Iuventa from the first boat. Aged between 15 and 20, they are fleeing war and one of the cruellest dictatorships in the world, not to mention the terrible famine that is striking the Horn of Africa. They all are tall and thin, their heads far too large above their necks and skeletal arms. They have just been rescued when the Sea Eye, another German ship, sends an alarm: there are eight rubber dinghies and a fishing boat with at least 900 people on board in their area.
It is an apocalyptic scene: the blue above, below and all around them, the orange of the life jackets and rafts, people screaming in the distance. This is the sound of catastrophe. The passengers of the fishing boat throw themselves into the sea, shouting and struggling “heeelp!” “Most of them cannot swim,” José explains, “they drown in a matter of seconds, I have seen them disappear underwater in front of my own eyes.” It is even worse with Bengalis because “they don’t understand what we are saying when we reach them with our RIBs,” Maggy remarks. They are oil platform workers, most of them hired as low-cost workers directly from Bangladesh by European companies operating in Libya.
But for José the worst part is descending to the lower levels of the boat where the poorest have been crowded together without any air. Despite his long experience in humanitarian emergencies and all the things he has witnessed, he says: “The eyes I have seen down there is something I’ve never seen anywhere else.”
Someone is able to swim to the Iuventa.
“Scissooors!” Marina yells, while she tries to rip off the wet clothes of an unconscious boy. “Can you hear me, my friend?” It takes twenty minutes and two people to warm him, then he bursts into tears. “Akhui, fin akhui?” – “Brother, where is my brother?”
Next to him, some women are trying to reassure their babies among the shouts. “We went from Homs to Damascus and then caught a flight to Sudan,” Maai tells me. She has travelled from Syria with those members of her family who are still alive: her two children with their long blonde ringlets, her second husband (the first one was killed in Syria), and her grandfather. She pulls a tablet out of the Barbie-pink schoolbag of her little girl and shows me a number beginning with +963. “Please, whenever you can, send a message to my mother and tell her the children are alive,” she asks me kindly.
War, famine, violence. Some of them thought they would find a better future and instead ended up among corpses, endured torture, and had to beg their relatives for money to pay the traffickers who kept them in check. After travelling like this for months or sometimes years, much as we call them economic migrants, they find themselves in the same condition of those fleeing from wars, facing the impossibility of going back.
The Iuventa is not equipped to take them to Italy, it is only able to transfer them to bigger ships like the MOAS or other Navy ships that are in the same area for Operation Sophia. This operation–which includes the Libyan Coast Guard–follows the Italian operation Mare Nostrum and the EU’s Operation Triton of 2014 and was launched in 2015 with the aim of neutralizing Libyan networks in the Mediterranean. Within a few hours, a German Navy ship responds to the alarm and takes all of the rescued migrants, a grotesque scene with two soldiers searching barefoot and half-naked people on the open sea before allowing them on board.
Almost 3,000 migrants have been rescued in just one day. It is late at night when 240 more people come aboard. The two emergency life rafts are full, with water coming up to people’s knees. At 2 a.m., a fishing boat rushes around the Iuventa at a speed of 4 knots and the captain is forced into making a dangerous U-turn to avoid collision. Dozens of people jump into the pitch-black sea. It is chaos. They try to climb onto the Iuventa. All the crew mobilises to contain the confusion. But by now our ship is over capacity with 309 people on board.
16 April 2017, waiting for assistance
Over the last two days the sea has been a millpond with a light wind blowing from the south: the most favourable days to sail from Libya. A Nigerian boy tells us that smugglers asked him for an extra 150 euros to put him on one of the first boats, ensuring him that they would save him. Maggy listens indignantly. “Did you hear that? Traffickers take advantage of anything and anyone just to make money.”
“I paid 2,000 euros; a Libyan smuggler gave me a false employment contract,” Mohamed, from Agadir, in the south of Morocco, reveals. For a young man or woman aged between 18 and 40 without a European ‘pedigree’ or a bank account containing millions, obtaining a visa for Europe is impossible; however, with a European passport, you can get a visa for Morocco in five minutes at the airport, for free. “For all that money I thought I was going to travel on a safe boat, I’m not crazy!” he adds in exhaustion, his lips chapped from dehydration.
But today the sea turns rough. The waves have reached two metres when the captain sends out a Mayday, together with two more NGOs. “The Sea Eye is packed with people and they have some corpses on board,” Maggy explains. The Italian Coast Guard is busy with a massive operation and take several hours to respond. Meanwhile, the Iuventa–with 309 people on board and surrounded by big waves–finds itself at the mercy of the wind, waiting for help.
Everything sways dreadfully, women at the bow sing loudly to fight back their fear. But as much as they try to keep calm, seasickness soon strikes. Everyone vomits, but after three days at sea on an empty stomach, only bile fills the bags. Mohamed, Anouar, and Taher relentlessly help those who need to use the bathroom and have to zigzag between heaps of bodies to get there.
Wrapped up in space blankets, which make a terrible noise as they shake in the wind, Jan carries a Nigerian girl who is three months pregnant and had collapsed in the hospital cabin. “She was passing away before our eyes,” Caterina says, her hands still trembling, “we couldn’t find a vein, she was so thin.”
Couscous and water are distributed with the utmost frugality. “The worst enemy on a boat is chaos,” Kai explains, “any panicky movement could make us sink.”
“I cannot eat,” a boy from Ghana says with an empty look of malnutrition in his eyes. “He took two!” screams a Nigerian, causing a tense and terrifying hum before Daniel leaps in to restore order.
After 30 hours of cold, hunger, fear, vomit, and water thrown on board by the waves, the Italian Coast Guard manages to organise a rescue operation that looks like something out of a movie. A 250-metre tanker stops 20 metres away from the Iuventa to protect it from the waves and allow the Save the Children ship to transfer the 309 people on board. Everyone is excited: the crew of Save the Children as well as the Iuventa, and all the passengers who can finally say “I survived.”
“When they ask me what it was like, what should I say?” Laura asks herself. “If I hear a conspiracy theory or a racist remark, will I be able to control myself?” Caterina wonders, but she has already made up her mind: this will certainly not be her last mission.
Translation by Lucrezia De Carolis. Proofreading by Alex Booth.
Cover photo: an overloaded Iuventa in rough seas is approached by the tanker that will assist the transfer of passengers.
All photos in the article are by Giulia Bertoluzzi for Open Migration.