The crisis affecting border crossings between Tunisia and Libya, which began in June, remains unresolved. Negotiations between the two nations to reopen the Ras Judair crossing for trade have broken down, after many weeks of hopeful anticipation. Movement along the crossing is limited to returning travellers and emergency cases.
Bin Gerdan traders have organized a sit-in near the Tunisian side of the crossing to demand a permanent solution to the crisis. Meanwhile, the Thaheeba crossing located in the far south has witnessed outbreaks of sporadic tensions.
The crisis erupted months ago when Libyan authorities decided to prevent fuel from being smuggled into Tunisia, which resulted in long queues at petrol stations in the Tunisian industrial city of Sfax, and at Djerba Island, a Tunisian tourist destination.
Head of the Libyan fuel and gas crisis committee, Milad Al-Hajrasi, said that 40% of Tunisia’s market needs are covered by smuggled Libyan fuel. “The losses from smuggling fuel were estimated by officials to be around $1 billion since the anti-smuggling campaign began,” said Al-Hajrasi.
On the one hand, the Tunisian authorities have said that the situation is on its way to being resolved, after a visit to Libya by Tunisia’s state minister for foreign affairs, Hatim Al-Farjani, to meet officials over resuming treaties between the two countries, in addition to talks on the recurring problems at border crossings.
This is not the first crisis, and it will not be the last. During the past few years, border crossings between Libya and Tunisia have witnessed much turmoil. The deteriorating security situation in Libya and the expanding power of militia authority have only given a boost to the smuggling phenomenon. Smuggling, considered to be a traditional activity in the area, has itself undergone something of a transformation, and now consists of a massive network that smuggles foreign currency, drugs and arms in addition to fuel.
On the other hand, Tunisia is suffering from its own hard economic crisis, and the booming shadow economy, based on smuggling and currency trading, is only one of its symptoms.
Yet the Tunisian government has not tried to put an end to this activity because it absorbs too many working hands, ones that the state fails to find job opportunities for. Instead, there is lack of development and infrastructure in border cities that continue to show the signs of great neglect.
The shadow economy is now the largest employer of the Tunisian workforce, but it has also become an area for tax evasion, costing the Tunisian state over $600 million in annual losses.
A study of the black economy in Tunisia, published in November 2017 by the Tunisian Institute for Strategic Studies, revealed the effects of this phenomenon on the actual financial state of the country and on the social conditions in border areas, in light of the challenging economic crisis the country is undergoing.
The study pointed out that production of black-market goods usually takes place outside the country’s borders, and they are then injected into the local markets via smuggling routes or networks of border traders working illegally.
The smuggled products are not subject to any controls and do not abide by any formal laws or taxation, which reflects negatively on the state’s revenues. The study also explained that this type of activity contributes between 15% and 20% to the state’s raw GDP (Gross Domestic Product).
The negative repercussions of smuggling also include trade exchanges and especially subsidies on goods. But on the other hand, the state has gained positive revenues as a result of illegal traffic in goods: from importing petrol, farming machines and other substances and products bought in by the state in foreign currency.
Black-market imports formed about 76.8% of the actual amount of imports from Libya in 2012, according to the study.
It seems that the crisis faced by the Tunisia-Libya border crossings will not be resolved in the short term, as it is not only a result of local social, economic and security problems, but is also a reflection of the domestic situation in both countries following the Arab revolutions, and the effects they have had on the central authority of the state.
It also forms a reflection on the regional situation in the Maghreb, which is suffering from political and economic degradation, clearly manifest in the state of the “Maghreb Union” which has been in decay for years. Amidst the political conflicts between its states, and the local crises suffered by its countries, only a little hope remains that circumstances will improve.