Migration from Tunisia
Why many young Tunisians set their sights on Europe

Tunisia has been going through a severe economic and political crisis in recent years. More than one in three young people there are unemployed. For many skilled, qualified and unemployed young Tunisians, the route to Europe, which lacks qualified personnel in many sectors, seems like the only way forward. By Marco Wolter

"I will take my rucksack and leave, the situation is such that I have no choice. But I am leaving my country with defined aims in mind. I am not leaving for no reason." These are lines from a song written by Moetaz ben Amer, also known as Bruktaz. The young 23-year-old rapper decided to leave Tunisia in November to find a job in Germany.

In his song "Hayet" (Life), he describes the last moments before he leaves. The video clip, viewed thousands of times on You Tube, begins in his bedroom.

In the video, Moetaz ben Amer looks at trophies lined up on a shelf. These are prizes he won as Tunisian champion in the game pétanque (a game of boules played on sand or gravel). He then grabs his passport and a wad of euros. Then Moetaz closes his suitcase, hugs his mother and leaves.

No choice but to leave

"If I could have stayed in Tunisia, I would have. My family and the people I love are all there, and I have loads of reasons to love my country. But I had no choice. I couldn't find any work, no one would offer me a job," he explains from his new home in Germany, where he arrived at the beginning of November.

Moetaz now lives in Oggersheim, a small town with about 23,000 inhabitants not far from the city of Ludwigshafen in western Germany. He shares the house he lives in with several other Tunisians – engineers, IT specialists – all of whom have the same aim as him, to find a job.

"The Tunisian employment agency has my migration file and it was they who found me a place to live here," ben Amer explains.

Back in Tunisia, ben Amer had hoped to become a sports teacher. But even with his degree in his pocket, he was faced with the same reality that hundreds of thousands of other Tunisians face.

High youth unemployment

The unemployment rate for those under 25 is higher than 37 per cent according to the Tunisian National Statistics Institute (INS).

In Tunisia, students who want to become teachers have to pass national exams to be able to apply for jobs around the country. "I was able to teach a few sports classes, but then they'd always place a spanner in the works so that I couldn't progress. Those who qualified as sports teachers in the year 2011–12 still haven't found work," explains ben Amer.

The higher education system used to be a source of pride for Tunisia. But the system is failing to adapt to the needs of the country's current job market.

Today, the service sector – for instance tourism – industry and agriculture are key to the Tunisian economy.

A group of Tunisians stage a sit-in outside a church, asking to remain in Italy, Lampedusa, 19 September 2019 (photo: Emma Wallis/infomigrants/DW)
With unemployment among the under 25s in Tunisia standing at over 37 per cent, many young people see no option but to emigrate. Europe is the preferred destination for seven out of ten people who hope to emigrate. Pictured here: a group of Tunisians staging a sit-in in front of a church, asking to remain in Italy

More candidates, fewer jobs

"The private sector has the capacity to absorb between 80,000 and 100,000 employees, mostly working in the textile industry, the leather industry and making shoes. By contrast, we have about 280,000 students with a higher education diploma who just can't find a job," says Anis Morai, an economic journalist and presenter of the program El Business on the broadcaster Diwan FM, one of Tunisia's biggest radio stations.

"We haven't succeeded in creating a symbiosis between what people are training in and the job market," says Morai. According to the journalist, "company directors might tell you that they need huge amounts of qualified personnel to satisfy their demands and that they can't find them. They are even ready to put their money where their mouth is and train these people."

Morai thinks that what is lacking is the political will. He calls public policy "disastrous" in Tunisia. The country could be split into before and after 2011, when the Jasmine Revolution took place and the year the former dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fell. Since then, elections have taken place but nothing has really offered political stability, he said.

"Since the revolution in 2011, there has been disenchantment. It is all totally unclear, there is a lack of stability and the costs of living are rising."

Previously, the public administration would absorb a huge number of employees, but they stopped recruiting a few years ago.

"On top of that, the public administration tended to recruit people who studied subjects like sociology, history, philosophy and geography. This is no longer the case, but those faculties continue to allow people to study those subjects. But who wants to employ a sociologist or a historian?" asks Morai rhetorically. The other problem facing Tunisia is that vocational training and manual work are seen negatively in the country.

"The real paradox is that those people [who view that kind of work negatively in Tunisia] are ready to leave and go abroad to do exactly those kinds of jobs," claims the journalist.

Anis Morai (photo: private)
"We haven't succeeded in creating a symbiosis between what people are training in and the job market," says Anis Morai, an economic journalist and presenter of the program El Business on the broadcaster Diwan FM, one of Tunisia's biggest radio stations

One in five dreams of leaving

A recent enquiry by the Tunisian Observatory on Migration and the INS found that almost one in five people in Tunisia said they hoped to leave the country.

The study revealed the profile of those hoping to leave. A typical leaver is "a young man aged between 15 and 24 years old, single, educated but without a job. Most of them tend to live in and around the capital city Tunis, or in the centre-east of the country, or the south-east," the study found.

Europe is the preferred destination for seven out of ten people who hope to emigrate, followed by North America, and other Arab countries. More than 40 per cent of those who hope to leave want to emigrate to France, 14 per cent to Italy and almost 10 per cent to Germany.

Among those who are hoping to leave, one in three tries to get a visa, whereas about 6.5 per cent want to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean without papers, a practice known as "Harga" in Tunisia. The number of people who say they are ready to risk crossing the Mediterranean illegally is probably actually far greater, estimates the study.

It is rarer for people to admit wanting to get on an illegal boat if they have had their visa refused.

That was the case for ben Amer. "I wouldn't have left illegally. I have studied and so I would have found a way to get there legally," says the young rapper, who also benefits from financial help from his parents. Like him, lots of young Tunisians are placing their hopes in employment agencies and enrolling in language courses, which all cost quite a lot of money.

In the video for his song, he sings, "all the young people come from my area. They smile, but they are not happy. Some of them just don't have the money they need to leave for Europe."

Young people take part in an anti-government protest in Tunis 26 January 2021(photo: Chedly Ben Ibrahim/NurPhoto/picture alliance)
Young people from the the city of Ettadhamen take part in an anti-government protest in Tunis, protesting against police brutality and demanding the release of youths arrested by the riot police during nightly violent protests in mid-January 2021

Social tension and corruption

These inequalities can create social tension. "There is a huge amount of disappointment among young Tunisians," says Mabrouka Khedir, a journalist in Tunisia who works as a correspondent for Deutsche Welle.

She too calls out the "weaknesses" in the education system. Khedir adds that corruption has also contributed to discouraging a huge amount of employees.

"You have situations where a young person who has studied and made a lot of effort is not hired, and another person without any qualifications obtains the post, because maybe they have an uncle or a cousin or someone they know who can make sure they get it, and that goes for the public and private sector."

In fact, according to the non-governmental organisation Transparency International, in 2021, Tunisia ranked 70th out of 180 countries on its Corruption Perceptions Index.

"Parents still hope that they can send their children abroad after they have obtained their baccalauréat (equivalent to A-Levels or university entrance exams). They are aware of this inevitability from the first years of primary school. They know it is difficult to earn a decent living in Tunisia. I think that the majority of parents know that their children won't come back," thinks Mabrouka Khedir.

According to Khedir, the most sought-after or traditional destination, because of the history and the language, is France. "But the positive image that young people have of Germany is starting to count more and more. People are saying that the French employment market is becoming smaller and smaller, and young people see that there is a certain current of Islamophobia there. On the other hand, Germany has a more welcoming and tolerant reputation."

Women stand and sit in the shade of a tree outside the cemetery known as the "Garden of Africa" (photo: DW)
The Tunisian cemetery known as the "Garden of Africa" is the final resting place for some of the people who died trying to cross the Mediterranean. Some 6.5% of Tunisians wanting to emigrate say they are ready to try illegally

Administrative obstacles

Mohamed Haddar, President of the Tunisian Economists Association, has children who moved abroad.

"My son is in Germany and is just finishing up his third degree. I don't think he will come back here, even if he loves Tunisia. I don't think he would find a job here that would match his education, and he wouldn't be able to set up his own business," explains the former dean of the faculty of Economics and Management in Tunis.

"It is really difficult to set up a business in Tunisia, especially because of the administrative obstacles. Just trying to register your own business throws up huge problems. Then there is the funding question, banks are not willing to take risks and ask for guarantees that young people just don't have."

His other son, who also left for Germany, ultimately returned. He wanted to create his own agricultural business. "We have a small amount of land and his mother is encouraging him, but it will be a struggle," thinks Haddar.

The economist explains that among those who leave legally, doctors, engineers and IT specialists find it easiest to find work in Europe.

The report from the Tunisian Migration Observatory found that 39,000 engineers and 3,300 doctors emigrated to find work abroad between 2015 and 2020.

The study also found, irrespective of age, that construction, the public sector, hotel and restaurant sectors offered the greatest number of opportunities to migrant workers abroad.

A struggling health sector

Europe is struggling to find workers in the health sector, while Tunisia struggles to keep hold of its qualified work force.

Those qualified in Tunisia don't want to work in public hospitals, which are often under-equipped or where workers are only offered temporary contracts. As in many other places around the world, the problems and insufficiencies in the Tunisian health system were worsened by the coronavirus pandemic.

"The pandemic could have been a wake-up call for the authorities, but in actual fact there was nothing of that," says Anis Morai from Diwan FM. "It has been 11 years now since the revolution...There is absolutely no attempt to strategise for the future," says the journalist despairingly.

Moetaz ben Amer on a pedestrian street in Germany (photo: private)
Moetaz ben Amer, also known as Bruktaz, is a qualified sports teacher and rapper. The young 23-year-old decided to leave Tunisia in November to find a job in Germany

And to make it worse, "all these people leaving are just rendering Tunisia even poorer. We don't have the policies to place ourselves in the market as an exporter of talent and knowledge, while keeping the minimum people back that we need to care for and construct Tunisia."

Anis Morai and the economist Mohamed Haddar want to see a migration policy that would benefit Tunisia and the countries to where Tunisians are emigrating. They think the best strategy would be to encourage close collaboration over the training of young people.

"See you soon, Tunisia"

"We need to make sure that we stop people from migrating illegally. That could be a solution for Tunisia and for Europe. A departure could be a benefit for the country. If you have lots of highly qualified unemployed people here it poses a social and political risk. If they leave, they can be ambassadors for Tunisia and they can send money home which will help their families," says Mohamed Haddar.

Moetaz ben Amer is now living in Germany and studying German so that he can obtain the level of German he needs to be able to start studying for a university degree in the country. "I want to do a degree in informatics. I can see that they need a lot of people in that sector. But also physiotherapy might also be a good idea, with the number of people who are old here. There are loads of options in Germany."

"I speak on behalf of a lot of people. I have received loads of messages from people who heard my song and who said it made them cry. The instrumental part is very melancholic, because it is about a very emotional story. I tackle the problems that almost all young Tunisians are facing," explains Moetaz ben Amer.

His song concludes in the airport in Tunis with some words in German. "'Bis bald Tunisien, hallo Deutschland' – See you soon Tunisia, hello Germany."

Marco Wolter

© infomigrants.net 2022

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