International News

Catholic Leaders Highlight ‘Dramatic Plight’ Facing Refugees and Migrants in Tunisia

Migrants on a wooden boat wait for the Italian Guardia Costiera near the island of Lampedusa, in the Mediterranean Sea, Sept. 1, 2021. (OSV News photo)

By Jonathan Luxmoore, OSV News

(OSV News) — The head of Tunisia’s Catholic Church has deplored the plight of African refugees and migrants in his country, amid fears anti-foreigner feeling also could erupt in neighboring states.

“The authorities and police have imposed much harsher controls, and many have tried to escape this terrible situation,” Archbishop Ilario Antoniazzi of Tunis told OSV News. “Many Africans here are practicing Catholics. Yet we saw at Easter how numbers had dropped sharply as so many sought safety elsewhere, often losing their lives in the process. One of our parishes recently held a requiem Mass for several entire families who’d drowned in the Mediterranean Sea.”

The archbishop spoke after police used tear gas and batons April 11 to disperse a makeshift camp of homeless Africans outside the Tunis headquarters of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, arresting dozens, and as Tunisia’s Border Guard confirmed that 33 bodies had so far been recovered from a migrant boat that had capsized April 12 off the port of Sfax while attempting the 90-mile crossing to the Italian island of Lampedusa.

The archbishop said the plight of sub-Saharan Africans — those living south of the Sahara Desert — had “become tragic” after a February statement by President Kais Saied, linking migrants with violence and criminality.

“More and more are risking death aboard fragile, unsafe boats,” Archbishop Antoniazzi told OSV News.

“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.”

Meanwhile, a senior Catholic aid worker told OSV News that migrants appeared to have been scapegoated for “internal political reasons” and warned that pressure also was mounting against aid efforts by the Catholic Church in Tunisia.

“The situation is very serious and escalating. The church doesn’t have the capacity to intervene, and Catholics risk a backlash if they try,” said Karam Yazbeck, Middle East and North Africa regional coordinator for Caritas Internationalis. “It’s easy for local politicians to blame weak groups (of people) like this for Tunisia’s socioeconomic situation. This is why migrants are paying a heavy price.”

Aid agencies have reported a sharp increase in drownings this year, involving people from Ivory Coast, Guinea, Senegal and other countries aboard overcrowded boats from Tunisia, where Saied appealed for “urgent measures” in a Feb. 21 speech during a meeting of the National Security Council. The meeting was meant to counter a “criminal plan” to undermine the country’s “demographic structure” and Islamic identity.

In an April 4 statement, the U.N.’s Committee on Eliminating Racial Discrimination said it was “alarmed” at Saied’s remarks, and urged it Tunisian authorities to condemn “racist hate speech” and arbitrary arrests and violence against Black Africans.

Meanwhile, in his April 9 Easter message and blessing “urbi et orbi” (to the city and the world), Pope Francis also expressed concern for the people of Tunisia, which borders Algeria and Libya, “in particular the young, and those suffering from social and economic hardship.”

However, on April 12 U.N. sources said 441 sea deaths had been confirmed in the first quarter of 2023, the highest number in six years, while Tunisia’s Coast Guard reported that more than 14,000 people had been intercepted or rescued aboard at least 500 boats — a fivefold increase over 2022.

A Swiss-born Salesian nun working in Tunisia told Austria’s Jugend Eine Welt charity the situation remained “tense all round,” adding that her parish was being notified of deaths every day.

“Among those recently drowned were six students, numerous housewives, parents with two children and a newly married couple,” said Sister Maria Rohrer, whose comments were reported April 10 by the Kathpress agency. “Their seats in church are empty, their homes silent, their little shops closed.”

Archbishop Antoniazzi said sub-Saharans feared not only the police but also their Tunisian neighbors who were evicting them from homes and jobs to avoid problems with the authorities.

He added that Catholic migrant parishioners had said they were required to leave immediately, whatever their misgivings, when places on a boat became available to avoid forfeiting their prepaid fees.

“Their families back home have often sold property and land to pay for their journeys — so it’s a disgrace if young Africans return home empty-handed,” the Italian-born archbishop told OSV News. “Fearing what might happen if they do, many are ready to risk death to get to another country.”

The 30,000-strong Catholic Church, with it 12.1 million inhabitants, has a single archdiocese with 12 places of worship and nine schools in mostly Muslim Tunisia. Saied, elected in October 2019, has ruled by decree since suspending parliament in July 2021. He gained stronger powers in a July 2022 referendum.

In her April 10 statement, Sister Rohrer said many drowned migrants had been brought to Christian parishes for burial in mass graves, adding that a funeral service for “unknown persons” had been held since most had discarded their IDs before taking to boats.

She added that those known to the Catholic Church were “not even the tip of the iceberg,” and said she was shocked so many were still prepared to risk the dangerous crossing to the Italian island Lampedusa.

Archbishop Antoniazzi said his church was doing what it could to help, but warned its possibilities, as a small, largely expatriate minority, were limited.

“Tunisia is a poor country with many essential things in short supply — though it’s lived from tourism, this is now also very limited,” the church leader told OSV News.

“While tolerance of migrants isn’t great here, these people aren’t well-received in Europe either,” he said. “Even if they get there, they’re treated as illegals and merely face new dramas.”

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), more than 20,000 people have drowned or disappeared since 2014 while attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Italy, where the government of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni declared a state of emergency April 11 after reporting a fourfold increase in migrant arrivals since January.

Yazbeck said that as the Caritas regional coordinator, he hoped the pope and Western church leaders would do more to highlight the situation in Tunisia — a U.S. ally and European Union associate state — recalling that most endangered Africans came from Christian backgrounds.

“The Tunisian government should be pressured to stop this genocide — what is happening is really inhuman,” Yazbeck told OSV News. “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.”