Tunisian in the Netherlands thanks to ‘Berlusconi visa’

RNW archive

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“Looking at the present situation in Tunisia, I know I can't have any regrets. I made the right choice.” Sami is 26 years old and has only been in the Netherlands for two weeks. He’s one of the tens of thousands to have left Tunisia, but one of the very few to have come to the Netherlands.

Despite studying law for a few years and having a diploma in tourism, he couldn’t find work back home. Apart from temporary jobs, he had been unemployed for four years. That’s why he, like so many of his contemporaries, took part in the revolution in Tunisia.

The protests against unemployment, corruption and censorship eventually led to the departure of president Ben Ali. Although the uprising hasn’t yet led to the improvements that were hoped for, Sami doesn’t think it was worthless.

“Regrets about the revolution? None at all. Maybe it hasn’t brought about an improvement in my life, but 14 January was the beginning of a new era for Tunisia.”

No future
Two months after the fall of President Ben Ali, Sami saw that there was no future for him in Tunisia. His only option: getting to Europe. He’s not the only one to have had the idea.

“There are lots of reasons young Tunisians think there's nothing for them back home. You get a diploma and then spend three or four years without a job.”

In his neighbourhood alone, 80 young people have decided to leave the country over the past few months. They all chose the same route: by sea to the Italian island of Lampedusa and then on to mainland Europe.

Sami made the crossing in a small boat with 16 others in the middle of March. He was told the journey would take about 12 hours, but they were blown off course.

Dream come true
After two days of being ignored by passing ships, a Tunisian fishing boat helped them get back on course. They drifted on another four days before they sighted Lampedusa.

“Everyone thought that our dream had come true, but it was awful. It began with the food we got from the Italian police when we arrived. It was really bad, inedible… There were not enough beds. Most of us had to sleep in the open."

'Berlusconi visas'

In mid-April, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi decided to give Tunisian migrants temporary visas. He thought the European Union was shirking its responsibility to deal with the migrant influx. About 20,000 migrants have received the visas which entitle them to travel within the EU. Some of the 27 EU member states are considering reintroducing border controls to keep the migrants out.

Visa from Berlusconi
After a few days, Sami was transferred to a camp near Bali in southern Italy. Despite having no passport or papers, he, like over 20,000 Tunisians, was given a temporary visa allowing him to travel freely within Europe. The rest of his journey was reasonably easy.

He walked the 28 kilometres to the nearest train station. After telephoning relatives in the Netherlands, he took a train to Milan and then to France. He had no trouble getting over the border. In Nice, a cousin picked him up and drove him to the Netherlands.

Most of the Tunisians Sami met on his journey were heading for Italy or France. He was the only one to have chosen the Netherlands - because he had family there.

He realises he took a risk leaving Tunisia; his visa will expire after three months and then he will be an illegal alien. His future may still be uncertain, but Sami knows he made the right decision.

Sami is a pseudonym to protect the young man’s identity.