From Choucha to Tunis – between Migration and Revolution
In May 2011 a delegation of the anti-racist networks Afrique-Europe-Interact and Welcome to Europe went to Tunisia. Apart from Tunis stops of the contact- and fact-finding tour were among others refugee camps at the Libyan border as well as Sidi Bouzid – the place were the uprising started in December 2010. Below are some impressions and also two requests to push on with the European-African co-operation in autumn – the „ships of solidarity“ against the EU border regime and the transnational conference in the Tunisian capital.
When the Tatort (title of a German crime series) „The illegal death“ was shown on TV we were at a hotel in Tunis. The scriptwriter could hardly know how red-hot his story would be in May 2011. A boat with refugees coming from Tunisia meets a Frontex patrol – on board German officers from Bremen. Instead of saving the people from the overloaded boat, a refugee was shot, the boat capsized, almost all boat people drowned. In a second attempt one survivor from Togo reached Europe and made it to Bremen. Her little daughter was one of the drowned refugees. The mother takes vengeance on the Frontex team who had covered up the incident. The inhuman methods of operation of the European border police were presented to millions of TV-viewers, also showing an internal order from the Frontex boss at the Warsaw headquarters to fend off the refugees at all costs. Even tough it was „only“ a good thriller, this evening might have been a disaster for the Frontex image.
This well worth seeing film is set in July 2010. Since February 2011 such deathly assignments seem even more realistic. Since then the operation Hermes is in force and Frontex patrols the Tunisian coast. In the past months more than 2,000 drowned boat people were counted between North Africa, Lampedusa and Malta. The death in the Mediterranean Sea looks like a calculated strategy of deterrence of the EU border regime. Multiple documentations show that refugees were intentionally not rescued and left to their destiny. (1)
Voices from Choucha: Open Escape Routes, Accept Refugees
“ ´We want to leave! Europe must help!` The demands on the cardboard plaques of the refugees and migrants at the Tunisian-Libyan border are very clear and urgent: for months 5,000 people have been waiting under unbearable conditions in the camp of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Choucha. All of them escaped from the escalating civil war in Libya where a lot of them were migrant workers. Others looked for refuge from the war zones in the Sub-saharan Africa. In Choucha survivors of capsized refugee boats meet those who despite all dangers and out of desperation set out to the Libyan border to try the dangerous crossing to Europe.” (2)
In May our delegation was in Choucha when the situation escalated after a burning. In film clips and interviews we documented the dramatic situation, even the mainstream media discussed the responsibility of the EU migration policy. In view of the conference of the interior ministers in Frankfurt as well as the EU Council in Brussels demands for an immediate resettlement of refugees were directed to the responsible German as well as EU ministers in June. Again they showed no mercy – consequently a Spanish NATO ship which for once had rescued refugees were refused landing in Italy and Malta. (3)
Ships of Solidarity
In July, in view of the unbearable situation French and Italian networks initiated the “Flotilla” (as „Ships of Solidarity” translated in the german version of the call). A more detailed concept is still discussed and also the question of financing the project which is supposed to start in October must be decided in the coming weeks. A new Cap Anamur (4) is not feasible. More likely is a small fleet of ships which will combine monitoring, public denouncement, escorts and if necessary rescues. However, the campaign with the participation of political and cultural prominence could and should gain more than great attendence of the media. The aim of this offensive step is to disrupt the re-installation of the externalized „watch dog regime“. “The democratic movements in North Africa are the chance to a new beginning. Instead of deathly exclusion and bizarre scenarios of harassment openness and solidarity must be the future of the editerranean area. Bridges instead of walls are necessary for a new African-European relationship, so that Europe will become a place of real freedom, common security and equal rights for all.” (2)
Meanwhile a transnational committee to prepare the ambitious ship initiative is established. More European and African countries signal support and assistance. In Germany a contact group of the above-mentioned networks was established. In any case wide and prominent support is needed, if boat people are rescued and transported towards European harbors. The repression the Cap Anamur as well as Tunisian fishermen experienced by the Italian authorities are still badly remembered.
December 2010 – the Spark develops to a Blaze …
The Tunisian president Ben Ali was one of the watchdogs of the EU migration regime. Not only transit-refugees but also Harragas (= to burn borders, slang for leaving the country illegally) with an Arabic passport where imprisoned for their illegal attempts to leave for a long time. However, the more important transit country for the EU was Libya. Consequently, the Gaddafi regime was flattered to further its involvement in migration controls. 2007 Frontex lead an EU delegation to Tripoli, even tough random detentions as well as torture and rape of refugees in Libyan camps were already documented. Nevertheless in the following years millions from EU funds were paid to enforce the Libyan sea and desert border. Even in November 2010 at the EU-Africa summit in Tripoli Westerwelle posed handshaking with Gaddafi. Moreover, an agreement of the police with Frontex was planned for the following months. But then came December 17 – in a small town in Tunisia the uprising started, the effects of which challenged the Libyan regime already in February.
The spark developed to a blaze as the young vegetable dealer Mohamed Bouazizi from Sidi Bouzid burnt himself to protest against harassment and corruption on 17 December 2010. In May, when we stopped in the small town we met a group of youths who proudly told us about the rough conflicts with the police in the December nights. „Some say it was January 14, but we say it started on December 17!“ From there the Tunisian uprising reached the neighboring underprivileged regions, then in Tunis it was taken up by civil right groups and students and at last it lead to mass strikes with the support of the unions. In the south the rallying cry was „Degage – disappear“. Finally on January 14 Ben Ali and his clan must leave the county head over heels. Minimal social concessions of the new governments (5) are insufficient. The youths in Sidi Bouzid are still not better off, but they are self confident – not only toward the police. At the end of February some of them participated in the new protests in the capital when the transition government (with representatives of the old regime) was chased out of office. In July new conflicts were reported from Sidi Bouzid.
Common Struggles in the Mediterranean and Beyond?
In May, while we were talking to the youths in the cafe at Sidi Bouzid, there were reports about the continuing mass protests in Spain. Hundred thousands occupy the squares in Madrid and Barcelona. Mostly young people protest against the policy of the elites which leads to lack of perspectives and increasing precarity. They explicitly refer to the mass demonstrations at the Tahrir square in Cairo and the dynamic of the Arabic spring. Through Facebook contacts in Europe the youths in Sidi Bouzid heard about it. They are happy that the effects of their uprising even go beyond the Arabic world.
One week before that we were in Tunis, participating at a meeting to which Tunisian students and activists of the „knowledge liberation front“ from France and Italy had invited. In spring the same network met in Paris for the first time. First and foremost to exchange their strike experiences on universities and to discuss common strategies. The successful Tunisian uprising had just reached Egypt. Tunisian activists introduced the idea of a larger conference in Tunis.
„In the context of the economic crisis there are a lot of parallels why we fight in Europe and why Ben Ali and Mubarak were overthrown“, it says in the appeal and continues: „We want this meeting to be a test field for reflection and collective work regarding the following fundamental questions: migration and freedom of movement for people and knowledge, precarity, debts and social welfare, free access to education for all, establishment of self-governed media and networks,
re-appropriation of urban areas, methods of social mobilization and experiments with new forms of organization and collective intelligence. (6)
In the past years the „precariat of the EuroMayday“ has dispersed. Could it have been too early for this political anticipation which now develops with social dynamic in the parallel more or less simultaneous and for all inspiring fights from Tunis to Barcelona and from Cairo to Athens? A common enemy from IMF and ECB to the national elites is recognizable in the so-called saving programmes but can that be permanent? The gap between North Africa and Southern Europe remains enormous. In spite of all differences - are these “precarious connections” not increasing? And if so, how can they be moved towards Frankfurt and Berlin? A lot of unanswered questions – but that they can now be asked in this dimension, seems to be reason enough to interfere and participate in this new dynamic transnational search process. The ships of solidarity as well as the conference in Tunis offer these opportunities.
h., no one is illegal / Hanau
(1) the shattering report „Logbook of Death“ in May, issue 21/2011 of the Spiegel (German political journal)
(2) From the appeal of Pro Asyl, medico international, Borderline Europe, Interact and Welcome to Europe. The appeal and further information and links can be found at www.afrique-europe-interact.net
To contact the ship initiative in Germany – firstname.lastname@example.org
Moreover in a brochure about Tunisia published at the end of August more detailed information about the trip will be published.
(3) TAZ (German newspaper), issue July 21, 2011
(4) The Cap Anamur II was a big ship with room for 300 refugees, bought for EUR 1.8 millions. 2004 refugees were rescued at sea. The Italian authorities reacted with criminalization and confiscated the ship. It took years before the accused were acquitted.
(5) Since April young people with a completed professional education or university degree receive an unemployment benefit of appr. EUR 250.00.
(6) From the appeal to the transnational meeting in Tunis which is expected to take place at the end of September.