70 years ago, the immigration landscape was completely different from what it is today. Europeans were migrating to Tunisia in search of jobs, dignity, and peace, in order to flee from poverty, hunger, and war.
In fact, historians describe Tunisia as a haven for migrants from all over the globe. However, ever since the first humans settled in North Africa, young people have yearned for a life overseas whether through legal or illegal immigration.
Tunisia, which continued to attract people during both periods of strength and weakness, as well as periods of prosperity and decline, has become a major source of illegal immigration to Europe, particularly to the southern regions of the old continent, where young people crave for a decent life.
According to data published in January 2021 by the “Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights” (FTDES) on illegal immigration during the ten years following the revolution, 65,657 Tunisian immigrants reached Italy, excluding those who weren’t registered or who disappeared while 42,019 immigrants were arrested. This indicates that there are more than 100,000 individuals who have arrived in Europe.
After Italy and Spain entered the Schengen Area and imposed entry visas for foreigners wishing to enter their countries, specifically those hailing from North African countries, illegal immigration from the southern Mediterranean, particularly Tunisia, to southern Europe exploded in 1990. In search of a better life, this forced young people to face the dangers of the sea.
However, 70 years ago, the immigration landscape was completely different from what it is today. Europeans were migrating to Tunisia in search of jobs, dignity, and peace, in order to flee from poverty, hunger, and war.
Migration Towards the South
Ahmed al Tawili notes in his book “On Tunisian Arab Civilization” that trade between Tunisia and the West became active and was accompanied by the migration of a large number of laborers and merchants to Tunisia. Al-Mustansir’s policy of openness after the catastrophic Eighth Crusade in Africa (Tunisia) in 1270 and the signing of a reconciliation agreement between Al-Mustansir Billah Al-Hafsi and Charles d’Anjou (Charles of Anjou) were largely responsible for this.
During the tenure of the Muradid dynasty in Tunisia, the mountainous city of Tabarka became the principal destination for immigrants entering the country. The country then received successive surges of Jewish immigrants from the city of Livorno, Italy. The Jewish migrants chose to settle in Tunisia after residing for many generations in the Italian commercial port city following their expulsion from Spain and Portugal after the Christian reconquest of those countries.
Livorno Jews left Italy to Tunisia en masse, looking for a better life; Successive generations had settled in Livorno after they were deported from Spain and Portugal by the Christians
Many centuries ago, the land of Tunisia attracted European immigrants and merchants, particularly from the southern portion of the ancient continent, namely Italy, Sicily, and France. Migration processes advanced during times of stability, prosperity, and economic recovery, whereas they declined during times of turmoil. Consequently, certain periods saw a degree of migration, such as during the rule of Hammuda Pasha al-Husseini (or Hammuda ibn Ali) and during the second half of the nineteenth century – so much so that laws in Tunisia were modified to guarantee the rights of European communities and expand their freedoms, such as the “Fundamental Pact” of 1857 and the constitution of 1861.
As a result of the French colonization of Tunisia, the country experienced waves of legal and illegal immigration, with the number of foreigners, particularly Italians, significantly increasing. In the meantime, colonial authorities created a plan to bring in builders to establish colonial foundations in Tunisia and assume control of its lands.
Immigrants are Workers and the Poor
Immigration from Europe – and particularly Italy – to Tunisia experienced a significant increase at the beginning of the 20th century, when the number of Italians alone in Tunisia exceeded 100,000.
In this regard, professor at the University of Tunis and historian Abdellatif Al-Hanachi said during his interview with the raseef22 media outlet, that immigration to Tunisia from southern Europe, especially from Italy, become much more common during the era of ‘Khayr al-Din Pasha’ or Hayreddin Pasha (Prime Minister between the years of 1873 and 1877). At the time, immigrants would work in trade, medicine, and handicrafts, and then immigration increased dramatically after the French colonization.
Al-Hanachi pointed out that the legal and illegal immigration to Tunisia occurred simultaneously by smuggling across the country’s borders, particularly by sea. In 1881, when French colonization began, he stated that there were nearly 10,000 Italians in Tunisia, compared to only 700 French immigrants.
Al-Hanachi states that the migration of Italians to Tunisia became evident after the signature of an agreement between France and Italy in 1896. This resulted in a rise in the number of migrants heading for Tunisia, with 70 percent of them being construction and agricultural laborers. Most fled their country due to harsh living conditions, such as poverty and destitution, and the quasi-war that was occurring in southern Italy at that period.
Al-Hanachi clarified that there were more than 94 thousand Italian immigrants in Tunisia in 1936, compared to 108 thousand French immigrants, and noted that the number of Italians in Tunisia began to decrease in the 1930s as a result of a large number of them acquiring French nationality. Al-Hanachi stated that the majority of Italians immigrating to Tunisia were from the impoverished southern region of the country, and that they would come to work in agriculture and construction, among other sectors. He goes on to say that they were mistreated by the French, but this was obviously preferable to how the French treated the Tunisians.
The migration of Italians to Tunisia picked up in 1896. 70% of the immigrants were laborers working in construction and agriculture fleeing harsh conditions such as poverty, destitution, and the quasi-war in south Italy
Al-Hanachi also discussed the increase in the number of Italian immigrants in Tunisia, noting that the number of Italians working in the industrial sector at the turn of the twentieth century was approximately 48 thousand compared to 21 thousand Frenchmen, while the number of Italians working in the agricultural sector was 14,656 compared to nine thousand Frenchmen.
In addition to Arabs from Algeria and Libya, Al-Hanachi mentioned many other nationalities that would settle in Tunisia, including the Maltese, British, Swedes, and Greeks.
Between Political Asylum and Displacement
In addition to the social and economic factors, the migration of Italians to Tunisia was aided by the political factor, particularly after the rise of the National Fascist Party in the early 1920s and the flight of thousands to Tunisia in fear of the Mussolini regime.
In this regard, Al-Hanachi stated that tens of thousands of anti-fascist Italians migrated to Tunisia in the 1920s, with French colonial authorities receiving them with considerable apprehension.
Al-Hanachi confirmed that just as Italians fled to Tunisia out of terror of the fascist regime, so did communists and socialists, indicating that Italian politicians also fled to Tunisia. In 1860, the leader of the national movement took refuge there, whereas Mussolini possessed a palace in the Bou Argoub region of the Nabeul Governorate.
The Tunisian historian asserted that thousands of Italians in Tunisia were exiled and deported to Italy by French colonial authorities after the Second World War, on the grounds that they had participated in the fascist movement. Then, he stated that all of their private properties, including those in the Grombalia region and the vineyards, had been confiscated.
Simultaneously, the French colonization banned all Italian communist newspapers and placed many Italians under house arrest, including the Italians in the Kef province, which was home to the greatest number of communists.
According to Al-Hanachi, the Italians once published their own newspapers and had their own schools, unions, factories, and hospitals, such as the one formerly known as the “Italian Hospital” but now renamed the “Habib Thameur Hospital.”
In Sicily, we are starving to death
On August 6, 1947, the French-language Tunisian newspaper La Dépêche Tunisienne published an article titled “Tunisia, A Land of Choice: The Tribal Homeland and Favorite Landing Spot for Illegal Immigrants from Sicily.”
Re-reading a page of the history of Italy that isn’t well known to the public can be interesting, namely the history of Italians in Tunisia” a time when Europeans migrated to Tunisia in search of food, safety, and freedom
The article mentions the apprehension of illegal immigrants who had traveled to the Nabeul Governorate’s Kelibia region in search of calm, food, and freedom. The report went on to emphasize that this phenomenon persists and that security and police forces are attempting to combat it.
According to the article, the immigrants said, “We are dying of hunger in Sicily and would rather die than return.”
Another article titled “Threatened by Death and Imprisonment” appeared in the newspaper “Aujourd’hui” on November 27, 1953, three years prior to the country’s independence. It was stated that “illegal tourists from Sicily are traveling 250 kilometers by sea to approach the tribal homeland” and that “immigrants risk the sea in search of a living and to escape the insecure poverty of southern Italy.”
Alfonso Campisi, professor of Romance Linguistics at the University of Manouba in Tunis, and Flaviano Pisanelli, associate professor at the University of Montpellier, wrote in their book “Memories and Tales of the Mediterranean – Story of the Sicilian Migration to Tunisia Between the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century” that “at a time similar to that of the current major migration from the south to the north, it may be interesting to re-read a page of the history of Italy that isn’t too well known to most of the public – namely the history of Italians in Tunisia.”
More than 100 thousand Italians arrived on the shores of Tunisia at the beginning of the 20th century after setting off in boats from the coasts of Italy – following mounting destitution, extreme poverty, and high unemployment in south Italy.
Campisi and Pisanelli reported that at the beginning of the twentieth century, more than one hundred thousand Italians landed on the shores of Tunisia after setting sail from the coasts of Italy – as a result of escalating destitution, extreme poverty, and rising unemployment in southern Italy. They boarded boats from the island of Pantelleria bound for Tunisia in search of work and a means of subsistence, and to avoid destitution, hunger, and destitution.
The authors added that the Italians “arrived in Tunisia on simple boats from Sicily’s coasts, carrying with them a small portion of their livestock. They came with a desire to labor and the hope of a better life.”
According to the authors, “these people were builders, farmers, and fishermen, but mostly laborers because they knew how to build and bring life to entire communities that would later spread across the nation.”
According to the book “La Tunisie Mosaque” by Patrick Cabanel and Jacques Alexandropoulos, the number of Italians in Tunisia has increased, as in 1881 their number reached 11,200 (while the number of Frenchmen was 700), while the population of Tunisia was only 1.5 million. In 1901, there were more than 71 thousand Italians in Tunisia; by 1936, that number had risen to nearly 94 thousand, compared to 108 thousand Frenchmen, when the country’s population was 3,780,000.
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