With a package of new legislation, Tunisia is showing a serious determination to combat its prolonged issue of human trafficking networks, linked with the smuggling of migrants. This legislation modifies existing laws addressing the issues. Current laws lack the vital element of acknowledging victims as “coerced”, and not “complicit “in any criminal acts related, committed inside Tunisia. By implementing these laws, Tunisian authorities guarantee trafficking victims “legal status” and a right to protection, to encourage them to report abuse.
A recent report titled ‘New Laws Bring New Hope for Tunisia’s Trafficking Victims’ published by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) stated that trafficking in people includes children, women and foreigners who have been abused in “domestic service”, “begging, criminal activities and sexual exploitation”. These crimes have been happening for decades in Tunisia, despite laws that “prohibit and punish forced labour, child labour and sexual exploitation.”
Before the development of the new legislation, started in 2016, victims of trafficking did not have legal protection. In 2012, Tunisian authorities arrested over 80 Tunisian women accused of prostitution in Lebanon. Many of them provided evidence of being forced into prostitution, they ended up in Lebanon through fake employment agencies who took away their passports.
Rim Dhaouadi, an expert with the “Enhancing Africa’s Ability to Counter Transnational Crime “(ENACT) project, explained the situation of the 80 Tunisian women in Lebanon meant that “they were prosecuted as accomplices and convicted under Tunisian law for being part of a prostitution network in a foreign country.”
The same issue apply to victims from countries such as Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, Nigeria, Mali and Cameroon who are trafficked or smuggled to Tunisia to serve as domestic servants.
“According to their testimonies, they were recruited in their country of origin by agencies which it turned out, had no real operations in Tunisia,” The ISS report said. Once they reached Tunisia, they were ‘transferred’ to their employers’ homes, where their passports were confiscated. Then they would be told that their visas had expired, and that made them illegal immigrants.
Rim Dhaouadi explained that confiscation of passports by trafficking networks had always prevented people from reaching out to the authorities, as doing so could result in expensive penalties to leave the country. Now that foreign trafficking victims have legal status and a right to protection and assistance, they are encouraged to report abuse to the authorities and civil society organisations.
Article 6 in the new legislation removes the uncertainty by guaranteeing “legal protection for victims who are also protected from criminal prosecution for offences committed under pressure or threat as a direct result of being trafficked,” Dhaouadi stated. In addition to this, “the law gives legal status to foreign victims of trafficking and ensures that they are provided with medical and social help. It also allows them to return safely to their countries of origin” Dhaouadi added.
Judge Raoudha Laabidi, President of the National Commission Against Trafficking in Persons, declared that “the number of trafficking victims registered in Tunisia had exceeded 700 people since January 2017. Among these victims, she said, 70% were minors, including around 100 foreigners,’ stressing the fact that the new law can help in increasing the registered number of cases of abuse.
The legislation is consistent with international law, and the recommendations of the 2018 UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, including the Palermo Protocol Supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. “Now Tunisia needs to focus on training judges, lawyers and law enforcement agents to ensure the law is implemented.” Rim Dhaouadi stressed.
As for the Tunisian migrants to other countries, a recent report by ENACT stressed that “irregular migration figures in Tunisia remain worrying, and the political commitment to tackle it is far from effective,” In 2018, Italy remains the principal destination for Tunisian migrants. “5244 Tunisians reached the Italian coast, representing 23.8% of the total arrivals in that country. These figures are the highest since 2011, the year of the Tunisian Revolution, which led to the ousting of former President Ben Ali, when some 25 800 Tunisian migrants arrived irregularly in Italy” ENACT reported.
ENACT criticised the legal framework in which the Tunisian authorities prosecuted people involved in irregular migration. “The criminal justice system often targets the lower echelons of the networks – instead of the brains,” a Tunisian lawyer told ENACT before a preliminary hearing in a smuggling case in October 2018 in the coastal city Bizerte.” In that particular case, migrants paid €1 000 each to be smuggled. The International Organization for Migration estimates the price generally _ can _vary from €3 000 to €5 000 per person.” ENACT project added.
ENACT recommended that Tunisian authorities should prioritise addressing the smuggling of Tunisians to Europe. “Politically speaking, this is a contentious topic and risky territory”, given that presidential and legislative elections will be taking place next month.