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Tunisia, country of emigration and return: Migration dynamics since 2011 (December 2018)

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In the last seven years, Tunisia has seen a large share of its young population leaving irregularly for Europe, part of which returned forcibly or on their own initiative over the years. During this timeframe, two major peaks were registered: an upsurge in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 revolution and a new, ongoing increase started in the second half of 2017. Economic and political hardship are largely considered to be behind these migration phenomena. However, a more nuanced understanding of Tunisian emigrants’ decision-making process about migration is needed to understand to what extent individual factors contributed to the two major emigration upsurges since 2011.

On the other hand, while these large outflows have been accompanied by proportionally comparable figures in terms of forced returns, there is a big knowledge gap with regards to the modalities and the conditions upon return. More information is needed to understand the circumstances under which readmission agreements, as well as voluntary returns, occur, what their implications are on the lives of Tunisian returnees, and to what extent such conditions affect Tunisian returnees’ potential for reintegration and development back home.

By looking at emigration and return as equally important phases of the migration cycle, REACH and Mercy Corps conducted the study on Tunisian migration entitled: “Tunisia, country of emigration and return: migration dynamics since 2011”. The study aimed to advance understanding of the (1) socio-economic profiles and (2) decision-making process of Tunisian emigrants leaving their country of origin between 2011 and 2016, and since 2017, 2011 and 2017 being the dates when the two emigration peaks occurred. Secondly, it analysed the (3) livelihoods in Europe, (4) decisions and motives of return, and the (5) conditions upon return of Tunisians who returned to their country of origin after 2011, either by voluntary means or because they were forcibly repatriated.

Data collection took place from 1 to 24 October 2018 in the Greater Tunis area and in the governorates of Sfax, Mahdia and Medenine. A total of 10 key informants (KIs) and 88 male and female Tunisian respondents participated in this study, through 80 in-depth individual interviews and two focus group discussions (FGDs).

What are the demographic and socio-economic profiles of Tunisian returnees?

• The vast majority of respondents interviewed in this study were male, single and aged between 18-24 years old. No major differences were found in the profiles of those who left between 2011 and 2016 or after 2017. Most of them came from the governorates chosen for data collection, but also from other coastal and inland governorates, known for being the main regions of emigration in Tunisia.

• Before leaving Tunisia to Europe, more than half of respondents reported gaining their livelihoods through licit forms of employment (33/56) or, to a much more limited extent, through illicit activities (7/56).

• The respondents’ educational profiles were mixed, but respondents who left since 2017 had overall a higher level of educational attainment.

What are the drivers of Tunisians’ decisions to go to Europe irregularly (without visa or other entry permit) since 2011, and what triggered the surge of Tunisians’ departures via boat crossing the Mediterranean to Italy since 2017?

• Tunisia’s difficult socio-economic performance (12/80), the persisting unemployment (10/80) and the political crisis (5/80) were the top three most commonly reported structural factors that overall affected respondents’ decisions to leave. A higher proportion of respondents who left in 2017-2018, reported that their decisions also resulted from increased social inequalities.

• Poor individual socio-economic conditions and the presence of extended social networks in Europe were among the main individual drivers shaping interviewed Tunisians’ decisions to migrate irregularly to Europe both in 2011-2016 and in 2017-2018.

• For those who left in 2011-2016, the revolution was a turning point to start considering the option of emigrating, while for around one third of respondents who left in 2017-2018 (9/24), not being able to build a family activated the decision-making process about migration.

• While the perception that leaving was easier due to low border controls was both a driver and trigger for Tunisians who left in the aftermath of the revolution (9/56), coming across someone who was perceived as successful was the most commonly reported trigger for respondents who left in 2017-2018 (6/24).

• The majority of respondents made autonomous decisions about migration, i.e. without consulting their families.
Nevertheless, respondents’ household conditions significantly contributed to shaping the migration decisions of a large number of respondents.

• Social networks were important enabling and encouraging factors of Tunisian emigration. Almost all respondents reported knowing someone who had already migrated abroad (78/80), and three quarters of respondents also knew someone who was living at their intended destination (62/80).

• Respondents’ perceived differences in terms of Tunisian emigration in 2017-2018 as opposed to the 2011-2016 period included: (1) increased economic hardship than in the past (26/80), (2) a progressive change in the demographic profile of Tunisian people on the move (14/80), with comparatively more women, children and full families joining outward migration flows than in the past.

• Almost all respondents reported being aware of the existence of regular avenues to reach Europe (74/80). Nevertheless, more than half of total respondents reported feeling that they had no other chances to go to Europe but to leave irregularly (37/56 among those left in 2011-2016, and 14/24 of those left in 2017-2018). Yet around one fifth of respondents had applied for a visa before and had decided to leave irregularly after their application had been rejected.