Immigration through Serbia, the new hope for the youth of Tataouine

"Nothing pushes you to take the bitter option like having a worse bitter option. Our country is suffering from unemployment and my son dreams, like his peers, to have a family. Irregular migration is easier than staying here and watching people develop while he is helpless and humiliated by the lack of resources. I will not wait until I see him hang himself," he said. With these words, Mahmoud summarizes his motives in raising money for his son, to travel in an irregular migration, or harqa "burn" in the Tunisian colloquial Arabic, through Serbia to France, following the path of hundreds of young people from the state of Tataouine.
Written by | 05 September 2022 | reading-duration 15 minutes

Available in ArabicFrench
Mahmoud is a father of 6, 4 sons and 2 daughters, coming from a family deeply rooted in Tataouine’s history. Although he is over 52 years old, he has not settled on a particular job all his life, due to the absence of sustainable job opportunities, and the decline in farming activity that he inherited from his grandparents year after year, as a result of drought and the high cost of feed materials. Mahmoud was forced to work daily in construction sheds, or loading goods and other casual occupations that earn a living on a day-to-day basis.

Similar to Mahmoud’s story, his eldest son Baker Ahmad* who is 18 years old, has also suffered from finding a job that would satisfy his ambitions until the country was no longer able to provide him with the basic needs. As a Tunisian man who had never gotten an academic degree in the most on demand sectors, such as medicine or engineering, his chances of immigrating to France legally were slim, which has left him with no choice but to consider immigrating irregularly to France through the Turkey, Serbia, Hungary trail which has become the safest option.

The search for a safe and discreet migration method required a higher amount of money, an amount that Mahmoud was unable to provide for his son, even though he did not hesitate to sell the piece of land he has inherited from his grandfather, in addition to four ewes that he was struggling to feed. Which eventually led his cousins to help him out. "My son suffered and got tired at the borders. My mind was not able to calm down, not until his siblings had shown me a picture of him with the Al-Kazaoui (notorious smuggler) group on Facebook. I was anxious and worried about his safety for days, especially that he wouldn’t tell me where he is staying whenever he called me" Mahmoud said.

Ahmad is only one of the hundreds of young men from Tataouine that decided to take the Serbian path towards France hoping he’d get a job that would get him and his family out of the growing distress and despair. An employee of the municipality of Tataouine confirms in an interview with inkyfada, that more than 5,000 parental travels permits to Turkey between January and August 2022 have been issued, which was according to the source, a large number in comparison to the years before.

A desire fueled by the conditions of the city and its location

After a long seven-hour road trip from Tunis, we finally reached Tataouine at four o'clock in the afternoon. The deserted city was almost empty of people and absent from any major economic activities, except for groceries and some coffee shops that had only a few people.

The next morning, at exactly nine o'clock, we sat in a café on the main road at the entrance of the city, waiting for Fathi, who came all the way from Qalb El-Rakhm, Somar’s district, located 50 km east of the city of Tataouine. Despite the wide smile that distinguishes his face, Fathi's story is not a happy one.

“Sorry for the delay, but it was out of my control. I waited for all the taxi seats to fill up before we had to get on the road. The movement has slowed down a lot in the last couple of months, and at this pace, no one will be left other than old white-haired people.” said Fathi Al-Taweel.

“In the last few months, the number of customers has decreased significantly so that no one is left. Which has led to a decrease in sales from 250 dinars to 70 dinars in the afternoon.” said Walid Hilal, the owner of the coffee shop for the last 15 years as he agreed with Fathi.

Ever since his childhood, Fathi has dreamt of a better future than the reality he is living in now. As he got older, more obstacles began to come across his way. Fathi has dropped out from school at the age of sixteen, after that he continued to work in different professions until he finally decided to pursue a training in hospitality and hotel management. Driven to this decision was his possessed passion for cultural exchange, discovery, and learning.

With a certificate of professional competence in hotel management in a 5-star hotel and a vocational qualification in catering services, Fathi started working on the island of Djerba. But a few months were enough to change his view of work. An accidental quarrel with his boss caused him to spend 6 months of agony, as he put his entire focus on harassing him in more ways than one.

“Relationships between employees and employers are characterized by the domination of the strong over the weak, which is the prevailing mentality in all sectors. This mentality led me to leave work, although the hotel and salary were both good, but the mistreatment was unbearable,” said Fathi.

The young man could not continue to work in the hospitality sector for more than 4 years. He recently switched to working in a catering company in the desert, despite the climatic conditions and the number of service hours that exceeds 12 hours a day. “Last November, I worked in a catering company. I barely completed 14 days because my boss treated me badly, on top of all the exploitation as well”, said Fathi.

Moving between the hotel and the desert, Fathi finally decided to open his own restaurant, a few months before he went bankrupt, forcing him to close it. “I wanted to expand the shop, but I did not have enough money, and even when I wanted to take a loan, no one was willing to lend me because no one trusted the success of the projects in Tataouine, while all of them expressed their willingness to lend me if I was to go through a Harqa, it had become a secure investment”.

Today, Fathi has the intention to immigrate more than ever. Following the path of 3 brothers who preceded him to France. All three of them managed to secure a job in the bread-making industry in Paris, at a salary that he considered good. His older brother immigrated in 2005 and the others followed him through Serbia in May and June of this year.

Although he prefers to work in his field, when it comes to France, Fathi sees no problem in joining the baking industry with his three brothers if he must, as long as it doesn’t mean that he’ll stay in Tunisia stranded. He also does not see any danger in emigrating through the Serbian trail, as he is reassured by the experience of his two brothers who confirmed that they have arrived in France in 17 and 20 days at a total cost of 5,500 and 4,500 euros.

"It is not easy to have knowledge that will make you seize opportunities to emigrate with the logic of minimizing the risks by following the so-called half-irregular or half-secret, considering that there is a trip that is done openly from Tunisia to Turkey and then Serbia," says Mehdi Mabrouk, Professor of sociology specializing in migration and author of the book Al-Malh w Al-Shera'a (the salt and the sail), in interview with inkyfada.

According to Mehdi Mabrouk, Tataouine has a historical legacy and thorough knowledge of trading, smuggling and the way their network operates, which makes it capable of changing the way it functions -that is the network itself- and capturing the moment. He asserted that it is among the special areas that include networks of cross-border smugglers, unlike the Tunisian coast and the island of Kerkennah, where certain Tunisian networks reside "Al-Laqqata", that picks up seekers for discreet immigration.

"These networks are mostly mid or small sized, and the more you head south, the more the dynamics and qualities of these networks change, as the tendency shifts towards networks that cross borders and countries. Hence, the names the Libyan, Egyptian and Turkish Hajj (A title given for the elderly)", Mahdi added.

"There is special knowledge that one has to obtain when it comes to the areas near the border, which has accumulated more after the collapse of the border system in Libya and Tunisia. There is a pattern of transcontinental networks today that use communication tools such as WhatsApp and Facebook for networking. You can find a multinational network that often is complicit with security networks. As this phenomenon appears to grow, there is also a tendency to resort to smuggling networks that provide different routes, coastal, airfare, and by land.” He continued.

How do smugglers work?

“I was planning on going to Subotica using the Belgrade route. However, but they have warned me from going there due to the restrictions imposed on foreigners because of the fear of suspected illegal immigration. In July 2021, I remained at an exceptional hotel where it would turn into an irregular immigration agency after midnight, which allowed smugglers to come and plan their trips there.” Said Housam, a Tunisian citizen who currently resides in the United Kingdom and has previously lived in Serbia back in 2021.

In Belgrade, Housam met a Turkish smuggler who was in his early fifties, whom he obtained a shallow relationship with based on the assistance Housam would offer in translating from Arabic into English. The smuggler would offer transportation that consisted of a 5-seater car from Belgrade to Reine for 1,200 euro per person.

“In Subotica, they’d divide turfs based on nationalities. You had the Turks, the Serbians, the Afghans and finally, the Arabs. Certain nationalities were prohibited from crossing certain areas, for example, Arabs were prohibited from using the afghan routes. It happened that they once noticed a Tunisian who tried to pass through a different route than the one that was assigned to him, and he was beaten and stripped from his clothes.”

In fact, the authorities appointed on the Serbian-Hungarian border are experiencing turf conflicts, with some areas being more strategic than others. It may happen that armed confrontations ignited between smugglers networks, since it already happened in the beginning of last July. The Serbian "Pravda" website attributed what happened to the fact that the current Serbian government deals with the issue of the entry of migrants in a catastrophic manner and with the logic of turning a blind eye to what had happened to them or even the cities that were affected by it last July as a result of this policy. "This disastrous policy that was attained had reached its climax in the past two weeks. First with an armed conflict between smugglers resulting in two casualties, and now with the discovery of a large number of weapons amongst the migrants."

While Fathi was talking about the incident that happened, he quoted his friends back then who were saying: There are at least 6 or 7 cars that Al-Kazaoui passes daily. Each one had more than 20 people in it. Camp Al-Kazaoui is considered to have one of the most notorious smugglers there. He even had bullets shot at him by the Afghans to control the area, since it was the closest one to the border and by far the most important location.

Al-Kazaoui, an alias, hails from the Moroccan capital, Casablanca. His features and location are undefined. However, he is still well known among the Tataouine youth by the name of Yassine Al Maghribi Al-Kazaoui on Facebook. The citizens of Tataouine trust El Kazaoui’s services because he keeps his clients protected and delivers them to their destinations in safe conditions.

Al-Kazaoui continuously posts pictures of the immigrants and their names on Facebook upon their arrival. However, lately his services have been in high demand, which is the result of more people resorting to irregular immigration through Serbia as Fathi Al-Taweel said.

On August 3rd of last year, the Serbian Radio website had published an article emphasizing on the increase in the number of refugees and migrants in Serbia during the summer, shedding the light on the number that has doubled compared to the end of year before and that “there is an established fact that citizens of Serbia can now see these people along the highway in the areas next to the border.”

The same article confirmed that Afghans dominate 40% of the total number of the refugee population, followed by emigrants from Syria, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iraq and other countries from the Middle East.

Emigration at the lowest possible cost

In another café that is located at the entrance of the city, we called Jasir Al-Shaibani, a 23-year-old young man, who currently resides in Paris. Jasir considers himself smart for knowing how to immigrate in the least costs and damages possible unlike many others. While others paid more than 5,500 euros to reach France, Jasir has succeeded to achieve that with only 1,800 euros. “I wanted to emigrate, and I had an idea of achieving it at the lowest cost possible,” Jasir says.

"And like the rest, I booked a ticket to Turkey in addition to a reservation in a 4-star hotel there, but later then I canceled the reservation and stayed in a hotel that cost 20 euros per night for a total of 3 nights in the Turkish Aksaray region. There I found a large number of Tunisians and people from Tataouine in particular,” He continued.

While Jasir was in Aksaray, he had met a group of Tataouine young people in a café when the news that Serbia's airport had taken measures to prevent the entry of Tunisian men and women into the country had begun to rapidly spread. However, this did not prevent him from continuing his plan. He proceeded to call one of his friends in Tataouine to book him a plane ticket to Serbia, in addition to a reservation in one of the hotels there.

Most emigrants that choose to go with the Serbian route often cancel their hotel reservations before they reach there, and since the security authorities at Serbia Airport have been aware of this matter, they are contacting hotels to inquire about the validity of the reservation. If they find it canceled, then they’d deport them.

After being aware of this procedure, Jasir was very aware to not cancel his reservation that had succeeded in allowing him to enter Serbia out of the 7 others who were accompanying him and who got deported back to Turkey.

After Jasir was released from Serbia's airport, he took a taxi to the hotel, where he spent the night and as soon as sunlight broke out, he went to the bus station to take a bus to Subotica, on the Serbian-Hungarian border.

In Subotica, he stayed at the Stefan Rooms Inn which he described as a hostel for the "immigrants", where he found no less than 200-250 Tunisian men and women there. He continued to explain how he used to hear many terms like ‘delivery’ and ‘passage’. Back then, he did not realize their meaning. At the time, the delivery was $3000, and the passage was $1000."

The pickup is the process of taking migrants by car from Subotica into the Hungarian or Austrian borders, without having to walk or use public transportation, while passage represents the process of crossing the borders into Hungary through a river and forest route, and then continuing after that road using different transportation methods without the assistance of smugglers whose mission ends at the Hungarian border.

Jasir spent two days at the hotel before deciding to try his luck crossing the Kazaoui route with only 1,000 dollars in his wallet. On the third day, he prepared his bag and got on the road in a taxi with 3 others to the meet up point with the smugglers where an agreement will be made, and then join the camp before embarking on the attempt to cross.

"I went out with the men of Al-kazaoui. The treatment was very good and I was relieved after I knew that the safety of migrants is an absolute priority for his armed men", says Jasser. He continues in a sarcastic tone: "His services are better than that of the embassy of France in Tunisia. He provides protection, a shopping mall close to the forest, as well as a guide inside the forest.”

As soon as the sun had set, the migrants lined up to buy a receipt for the route that they had picked. Jasir had received a passage receipt of a total of 1,000 euros. A receipt which gives him the right to cross again the border an unlimited number of times until he finally succeeds. This method is different from the sea route, where the payment is per attempt, regardless of the result of the previous trial.

That night, Jasir went out to the river where he had to reach the other side that officially marks the beginning of the Hungarian border. Jasir continued to explain that the river was not big, since they had crossed 100 meters of it on an electric boat just to find themselves in a forest where they had to continue walking for at least an hour. Eventually they got some time to rest there, and were able to eat and smoke.

After walking through the forest, they were blocked by two iron fences separating the Serbian-Hungarian border, which the smugglers cut from below. After they got past the fence, they had to pass through another forest in which they had to walk in disguise taking into consideration the military line that was located on the highway between the two borders.

Jasir's first attempt to cross the border did not go well as planned, as he was arrested along with the others by the Hungarian authorities which left them no option but to get sent back to the Serbian border security zone after being photographed during the half-hour stop. From there, Jasir had to return back to the inn at six o’clock in the morning, hoping to get a bit of sleep, but little did he know they were going to try to cross the border again that night.

This time, Jasir’s luck peaked as he had managed to cross the border police control, and from Subotica he arrived to Sjed, where he took a taxi towards the capital, Budapest, for 250 euros, accompanied by 3 other immigrants.

Upon their arrival in Budapest, there was an old Egyptian man who works on buying online train tickets for immigrants who often do not possess a valid credit card. He used to charge approximately from 15 to 50 dollars per ticket. However, Jasir was smart enough to not resort to him and instead he had called his cousin, who booked a ticket for him to Bratislava directly, which he later on found out that it was full of security guards upon his arrival.

 From Bratislava, he took the train again to Pereklav, Czech Republic. Upon his arrival there, he called one of his friends to book him a train to Vienna, the capital of Austria. In Vienna, he let out a sigh of relief because he felt that he had overcome the most difficult part and his goal was getting closer and closer by the minute. Jasir was able to arrange his thoughts, eat and drink quietly at the train station. From there, the train boarded again with the intention of heading to France, but after 8 hours he discovered that it had reached Zurich, Switzerland.

There he was held in a detention center. However, Jasir emphasized on their kind treatment as they asked him about his religion to provide him with halal food. The next morning, they gave him a paper and asked him to leave the Swiss territory. Jasir immediately left from there to Salzburg, where he had met his uncle so they could head to Paris together by car.

Jasir is currently enjoying what he described as nothing more than a calm and normal life. He works daily in his uncle's bakery in the suburbs of Paris, with his brother. Jasir also mentioned that the majority of the immigrants who do not carry papers and work in bakeries start work after two in the afternoon and until ten at night to avoid the surveillance security that spreads in the morning.

Jasir considers himself lucky that his relatives are there and emphasizes that venturing in an individual way is very difficult and that anyone who does not have residence documents will suffer on the street before getting a job. However, he confirms that there are employers who accept to employ migrants with false documents in order to be able to pay social insurance and obtain residence documents at a later stage.

Bakery and restaurant employees often work according to a two-shift system. Usually, people who have their legal documents and residency sorted out work in the daytime shift, which usually starts at either ten or eleven o’clock in the morning till five in the afternoon. As for the night shift, they usually keep one person with legal documents to be present in case of police checks so that the others can either hide or leave.

“Employers usually take advantage of the great supply of workers in restaurants and the lack of it among the French. But there are those who legally immigrated from their countries, and there are those who are brought in other ways and pay them less than the minimum wage, which barely goes up to 1,200 euros per month”, says Yasmine, a young Tunisian woman, residing in France, in an interview with inkyfada.

“Usually, a work contract is finalized through a relative which allows obtaining a 3-month visa. To avoid stopping a person after exceeding the legal residence period, operators who often own more than one store in different areas, register the person's residence in a place other than the one that the host is in”, Yasmine adds.

"Despite the high fine for employing a person without legal documents, that exceeds at least 35,000 euros, some employers still choose to take the risk for the sake of their relatives. Most people I knew there that are from Tataouine and the nearby areas, received help from their employers to kickstart their new life”, she continued saying.

On the other hand, Yasmine had confirmed that there are other illegal ways that immigrants resort to, for example, forging the residence documents of another European country which they present whenever stopped by an officer.

“The goal is to reach a specific number of salary certificates, which exceeds 10 to 11 certificates, for them to be able to apply for legal residency documents. However, the procedure itself takes a long time, which may exceed 3 years”, says Yasmine.

Irregular immigration, a family project

“Today, the emigrant departs from Tataouine, heading to the airport with their relatives’ blessings and support. This type of immigration differs to that of the traditional seafaring immigration that usually occurs in secret and without the approval and acceptance of the family due to its risky nature. The seafaring trip continues to be a secretive and dangerous journey with unknown outcomes, where even settling into a new life after will be more difficult in the absence of a host, such as that of family or close friends. Here, the role of tribal solidarity is highlighted,” said Mahdi Mabrouk.

Starting from Jasir’s journey and going through Fathi’s preparations and circling back to the way in which Ahmad has collected the expenses of immigration, we can understand the pivotal role of kinship and solidarity, and of the region’s anthropology in creating a great sense of solidarity. In this, we do not talk about solidarity in the context of love and trends but rather solidarity that guarantees safety, protection, exchange of interest, and benefits based on showing a kind of strength, reducing risks, and solving problems away from the eyes of the political authority, according to Mabrouk.

This method, which challenges the security services and border control, in order for it to succeed, will require familial and tribal solidarity. This is due to the high cost and financial burden that comes with it, which are normally shared, along with other roles, amongst family, such as finding information, making sure of its safety, moving to the places where migrants gather or even receiving them, amongst other things.

Mahdi Mabrouk believes that the family has come to believe that it is not possible to achieve a social transition with its own resources and especially during this period in Tunisia, but it is necessary to burn through the required stages to trespass borders towards the northern countries, although this may carry a kind of contradiction for some, considering the family is the protector and feels tenderness, but the ladder of values is completely different, to witness the burn down of old beliefs and the redistribution of roles so that helping to emigrate turns into a new value.

The term “ Harqa” which translates to “a burn”, appeared since 1990-1999 when the Italian authorities imposed a visa on the entry of Tunisians, which indicates a kind of continuity whose motives and circumstances are renewed all the time and for decades, but the actors in it are changing, as we are witnessing the birth of the new line on Serbia today.

On August 2nd, 2020, coinciding with his visit to the city of Sfax, President Kais Saied admitted that the security approach was useless, but attributed the cause of the waves of Harqa to a conspiracy hatched against the country. But the reality proves to us that we are still far from activating any social and political options or strategies to alleviate the waves of unsafe migration, other than turning it into a security issue, as we find ourselves facing a surge in numbers in the past three years, and as historical fact shows that Harqa existed with Ben Ali and with all the governments that came after 2011.

The limited impact of the security approach on irregular migration on curbing this movement between the two banks of the Mediterranean is shown by the increase in the number of those who tried to migrate over the past ten years from 2947 in 2012 to 42070 in 2021. On the other hand, we are witnessing more restrictions on the coasts due to the increase in the number of people arrested while crossing the maritime borders compared to those arriving to Europe by sea between 2011 and 2021 from 26% to more than 150%, according to the latest annual report on irregular migration of the Tunisian Forum for Social and Economic Rights.

"From the rhetoric adopted by young people seeking to emigrate today, it is clear that this desire is fueled by a psychological crisis that is fed from continuous political and social frustration and every time a glimmer of Hope opens, it is quickly extinguished," says Mehdi Mabrouk.

Despite the specificity of the migration wave that is hitting Tataouine and the surrounding cities, we cannot ignore in the end that in the north, too, such as Bizerte, there are villages that have been touched by irregular migration in a clear and obvious way. Each region has its own peculiarities. There are networks in the ports, in the coastal areas, other networks at the land borders, all of which have their own mechanism and methods of operation according to the conditions, equipment and the quality of the existing security apparatus. We may find smugglers of goods turning into human smugglers armed with the same knowledge and networks.