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Migrants and refugees in Tunisia need help, says priest

12 May 2023


Migrants are stopped by the Tunisian Maritime National Guard at sea during an attempt to get to Italy, near the coast of Sfax, Tunisia, on 18 April

Migrants are stopped by the Tunisian Maritime National Guard at sea during an attempt to get to Italy, near the coast of Sfax, Tunisia, on 18 April

CHRISTIAN leaders have warned of drastic conditions facing migrants and refugees in Tunisia. Huge numbers have drowned in the Mediterranean while fleeing a crackdown in the North African country.

“More and more are arriving in our own parish, as we reach out and try to meet their physical and spiritual needs,” the Rector of St George’s, Tunis, the Revd Frank Bernardi, said.

“We’ve held memorial services for parish members who’ve drowned on the boats and haven’t received a burial. But, with more and more Africans coming here seeking asylum or entry to Europe, I don’t foresee any improvement.”

The US-born priest spoke to the Church Times as a four-year-old girl was reported missing on Monday of last week, when a boat that had left the port of Sfax, carrying 34 people was picked up by the Italian coastguard.

Mr Bernardi said that his own community, founded in 1901, was one of several now devoting “time, energy, and resources” to migrants and refugees, whose numbers are expected to increase in the wake of violence in Sudan.

“Tunisia doesn’t have a history of non-governmental charity work; so there’s little that can really be done in this complicated situation,” Mr Bernardi said. His parish of 300 people incorporates Arabic-speaking Tunisians and Anglicans of other nationalities, and is part of the diocese of Egypt with North Africa & the Horn of Africa.

“Although we’d welcome greater help from groups such as Christian Aid and Caritas, what most migrants really want is help getting to Europe — and there’s nothing we can do about that.”

Aid agencies have reported a sharp increase in Mediterranean drownings this year, involving overcrowded boats from Tunisia. Last week’s incident was one such to have occurred after the President of Tunisia, Kais Saied, issued a statement calling for “urgent measures” to counter a “criminal plan” to undermine his country’s demographic structure” and Islamic identity.

In a statement last month, the UN Committee on Eliminating Racial Discrimination said that it was “alarmed” at President Saied’s remarks, and urged Tunisian authorities to condemn “racist hate speech” and arbitrary arrests of, and violence against, black Africans.

UN sources said that 441 sea deaths had been confirmed in the first quarter of 2023 — the most in six years — while Tunisia’s coastguard reported that more than 14,000 people had been intercepted or rescued aboard at least 500 boats: a fivefold increase on 2022.

A Roman Catholic Salesian nun working in Tunis, Sister Maria Rohrer, told the Austrian charity Jugend Eine Welt that the situation remained “tense all round”, and that her parish had introduced a funeral service for “unknown persons” after being asked to bury drowned migrants who had discarded their IDs before taking to boats.

The RC Archbishop of Tunis, the Most Revd Ilario Antoniazzi, confirmed last week that the flight of migrants had increased dramatically after police imposed “much harsher controls”. He said that one of his parishes had recently held a requiem mass for several entire families who had drowned while attempting the 90-mile crossing to the Italian island of Lampedusa.

The Archbishop said that many young Africans feared the disgrace of “returning home empty-handed”, knowing that their families had often sold property and land to pay for their journeys. But his own Church’s possibilities, as a largely expatriate community, were also limited, he said.

“Most Africans here are practising Christians — and many are now seeking safety elsewhere, often losing their lives in the process.

“While it’s true the Mediterranean has become one large cemetery, we should remember the Sahara Desert is also a vast ancient cemetery: those trying to return home this way often die without trace.”

More than 20,000 people have drowned or disappeared since 2014, while crossing the central Mediterranean to Italy, the International Organisation for Migration reports. The right-wing government of the Italian Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, declared a state of emergency in April, after reporting a fourfold increase in arrivals since January.

The InfoMigrants media organisation, created in 2017 with European Union support, said that up to 300 migrants were known to have drowned in the last week of April alone. Tunisian border officials had also detained and returned 1800 others.

The media organisation said that the Sfax Governorate, one of the governorates of Tunisia, had discussed “radical solutions” at an emergency meeting with health authorities. More cemeteries were planned, as more than 300 bodies had been retrieved from the sea so far this year.

The regional co-ordinator of the RC organisation Caritas Internationalis, Karam Abi Yazbeck, hoped that Western church leaders would do more to highlight the situation in Tunisia. The country is an ally of the United States, and an EU associate state; and President Saied, elected in 2019, has ruled by decree since suspending parliament in July 2021.

“The situation is very serious and escalating; it’s easy for local politicians to blame weak groups like this for Tunisia’s socioeconomic problems, and this is why migrants are paying a heavy price,” Mr Yazbeck said.

“The countries of North Africa sometimes imitate each other, and it’s possible others will now also adopt a harsh anti-migrant policy. This isn’t an easy region for Christians anyway; if what’s happening in Tunisia is replicated elsewhere, it will be devastating.”

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