OFF THE TUNISIAN COAST (Reuters) - Tunisian smugglers are offering migrants seeking a fresh start in Europe a new route from Africa to Italy.
Thousands have made the dangerous 300 km journey between Libya and the Italian island of Lampedusa this year and hundreds more are thought to have died trying to crossing the Mediterranean Sea to reach European shores.
A crackdown by the Libyan coastguard in August has forced migrants and smugglers to find alternatives, giving Tunisians an opportunity to sell spots on overcrowded boats between the Gulf of Tunis and Sicily.
The number of migrants trying to make the trip, which can be as short as 150 km, has jumped in the last month while fewer are leaving from Libya.
Most are Tunisians fleeing economic hardship at home. Others want to avoid increased navy patrols off Lampedusa and prefer to arrive on the larger island of Sicily where it is easier pass unnoticed. Penalties for smugglers and migrants are also light in Tunisia if you are caught.
“The route to Sicily is not as heavily guarded as to Lampedusa,” said Hassen Rebhi, captain of a Tunisian coast guard captain whose boat patrols the waters off Tunisia.
Libya is still a much bigger departure point for Europe with 108,000 reaching Italy from Libya in 2017, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
But Tunisian arrivals are on the rise with 1,400 in September, up from 1,350 in the first 8 months of the year. Many others are believed to have reached Sicily but escaped detection and identification.
Tunisian coast guard officials said they had foiled 900 departure attempts in September compared to 170 in August. About 80 percent are Tunisians but there are also Libyans, Moroccans and sub-Saharan Africans.
The route from Tunisia has been active before - some 20,000 left in 2011 as Tunisians tried to escape political turmoil when longtime president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali was ousted.
Tunisia won international praise for its democratic progress and the numbers seeking to leave fell but successive governments have failed to create jobs for young people.
Some 40 km offshore, Rebhi’s boat pulled up alongside an inflatable boat overloaded with 14 young Tunisian men who had been hoping to make it to Italy. The coast guards ordered them to switch off their engine and climb aboard the ship.
“I watched many videos of young people who arrived in Italy. I have been unemployed for five years and don’t have any hope things will get better in Tunisia,” said Anwar, a Tunisian who was shivering after spending 8 hours on the damp boat.
European officials are worried about an influx of Tunisian jihadists. Thousands of Tunisians have left to fight for Islamic State. Some have also made their way to Europe including Anis Amri who killed 12 people when he plowed a truck through a Christmas market in Berlin.
Italy last week urged Tunisia to increase patrols, an Italian interior ministry spokesman said. It also wants to increase the number of Tunisians that can be repatriated from 30 a week to at least 80.
Tunisia’s navy has stepped up controls but the arrival of many in Sicily celebrating and dancing on beaches in social media posts is a powerful draw.
All those in the inflatable vowed to try the crossing again.
“I prefer to die in the sea than to stay in Tunisia without dignity,” said Hassan Chouchan, a 27-year-old who had lost his job as an entertainer in a tourist resort.
“Please let us continue our journey. We do not want to stay here,” he shouted at the coast guard.
Frustrated young people openly discuss plans to leave.
Families from Aweld Amer, a village near the tourist resort of Sousse where an Islamist militant shot dead 39 foreigners in 2015, told Reuters that at least 300 of the 4,000 residents had left for Italy.
More than 600 youths in the southern city of Tataouin left, while more than 1500 young people left the coastal towns of Hargeleh, Monastir, Sfax, Chebba, Bizerte and Kelibia last month alone, residents said.
“The government says it encourages private projects,” said 25-year old Borhan Sallem in Monastir, a port two-hours from Tunis. “When I wanted to get a loan to buy a fishing boat they refused it.”
Reuters met him and a group of friends in the port of Monastir in presence of a smuggler, a fisherman, who brought them days later safely to Sicily, relatives confirmed.
The interviews came abruptly to an and when a police car arrived at the port to monitor possible smuggling activity.
But migrants and the smuggler said they were not worried about getting caught.
They also feel the trips are safe as the boats are driven by fishermen who are less likely to abandon local people in rough seas than Libyan armed groups.
“You get detained a few days and that’s it. The trip is safe. I don’t go with more than 30 to 50 people,” said the smuggler.
Farhat Mansour, a 26-year-old Tunisian who paid a smuggler 3,000 Tunisian dinars ($1,223) for the journey to Sicily said the Italian police put him and others in a detention center when he arrived a month ago. Only those suspected of having militant ties were still being held.
Mansour has not found work and is living with under bridges with other Tunisians but has no regrets.
“Here maybe the opportunities are few, but in Tunisia the opportunities are totally non-existent,” he said.
additional reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Anna Willard