Refugees in Tunisia: women share stories of exploitation, hope, and regret

by Sandra Pertek (Researcher at University of Birmingham) and Monia Ben Taleb (Psychologist at the
Doctors of the World)

The Untold Stories project invited several forced migrant women intercepted in Tunisia to share
their stories in their native language through creative expression. In collaboration with the Doctors
of the World (Médecins du Monde/MdM) Belgium in Tunisia, a psychosocial support session was
held in Zarzis with six forced migrant and asylum-seeking women from Cameroon, Sierra Leone,
Ivory Coast and Nigeria, now residing in Medenine and Zarzis. Their names in this post have been
changed for safeguarding purposes.

Doctors of the World in Tunisia have been offering support to migrants since 2015 by providing key
life-saving health, and mental health supports to distressed migrants arriving in Tunisia.

Psychosocial support activities in the context of displacement aim to support well-being of forced
migrants. Activities are wide-ranging and can include arts, sports, cooking, and skills development, to
name a few. In one psychosocial activity led by the MdM psychologist, Monia Ben Taleb, the
participants shared their stories in a safe, women only space, through arts and peer conversations.
All participants have already known the psychologist and had developed a trusting relationship with
her during previous sessions. However, this was the first-time participants met together for a group
activity in which they talked with peers about their migration experiences. Participants supported
each other emotionally through story-telling and active listening.

Most women talked about, drew and/or wrote about difficult experiences of forced migration, in
which harm, endurance and lack of opportunities were common. The key themes centred on:
1) Women’s resilience and psychological distress
2) Uncertainty of waiting and feelings of incapacity and powerlessness
3) Interrupted journeys with some considering returning to Libya to once again take a dangerous
sea-crossing to Europe.

Photo 1 A woman participating in a psychosocial activity with Doctors of the World in Zarzis

What happens when forced migrants get to Tunisia?

Tunisia receives forced migrants daily, often arriving from Libya or being transported from the sea by
rescue operations. Most individuals find themselves stuck in Tunisia with no opportunities to
continue their journeys and being refused asylum claims, with a minority awaiting either
resettlement or seeking temporary settlement in Tunisia. In Southern Tunisia some of the most
vulnerable forced migrants can access international migrant or refugee shelters for limited time with
monthly vouchers, but most are required to find private accommodation promptly without support.

What happens on a forced migrant journey?

Many forced migrants experienced appalling abuses and mistreatments during their journeys; they
were subjected to kidnapping, exploitation and sex trafficking, as described by Asiyah from Sierra
Leone in her letter below (Photo 2).

Photo 2 Letter from Asiyah: Experiences of migrants during their journeys.
Translation of the letter: 90% of female migrants face rape, torture, slavery etc. 90 % of male migrants face slavery, torture,
and sometimes being abused by a guy or smugglers. Tunisia is not part of most migrants’ journey plan but migrants choose
it for temporary stay. Migrants also face a lot of racism in Tunisia and lack of job opportunities etc.

Asiyah chose to write about her traumatic experiences from her home country, the refugee journey
and a place of refuge. When sharing her letter with other participants, she talked with anger—on
behalf of other migrant women—about the injustice they have faced and their interrupted journeys.

Psychological distress and lost hopes

Some women recalled the dangerous sea crossings made during their journeys as part of peer
groups, some of whom they witnessed dying in the sea, before arriving to Tunisia. However, the
most acute stressors generating psychological distress narrated by women were family issues in the
country of origin, in addition to the traumas experienced during their journeys. They were worried
about the situation of their children, parents and family members left behind, including various
concerns from death to black magic.

Samantha from Ivory Coast drew a boat which represented the journey to Europe she attempted to
take, facing multiple dangers. She reflected on the pain of leaving four children behind at home,
including a baby girl, and her continued concerns about their whereabouts. She felt upset that she was unable to achieve her goal of migration to support her family financially, as she did not manage
to reach Europe. Instead she confronted Tunisia where she struggled to access economic
opportunities. Earlier Samantha carried hope for migration as means for improving her family
welfare. But staying in Tunisia, she felt that she has failed her family and secretly conspired to return
to Libya to re-attempt sea-crossing towards Europe again. The poster below (Photo 3) represents the
pain and anger of a migrant mother having left her children behind, and the everyday longing to
meet them again. Samantha imagined her children could join her one day in Tunisia.

Photo 3 Drawing by Samantha reflecting on her journey and children left behind in Ivory Coast
Drawing description: Douleurs = pain, Projet = project, Colère = anger

Other participants felt angry that they failed in reaching their desired destinations to ensure for their
children’s better future. One survivor, however, had hope despite a self-perceived failure of
migration. Victoria from Cameroon kept on smiling when drawing her poster (Photo 4), she said:
“She wanted to cry, but she found her smile again,” despite unspeakable hardship in her migration
journey, mistreatment in detentions in Libya and the continued concerns about her children’s safety
in Cameroon.

Photo 4 Drawing by Victoria demonstrating hope despite unspeakable hardship
Drawing description: Elle voulait pleurer, mais elle a retrouvé le sourire – She wanted to cry, but she found her smile again;
Une rêve echoué: failed dream; Une vie avec de l’espoir – a life with hope

Smugglers put women at risk of exploitation

Some women talked about losing money on smugglers who turned out to be abusive and who made
them feel powerless to escape mistreatment and sexual exploitation. They expressed regret. Akidoo
from Nigeria presented herself as a caring mother of three. She said her children gave her hope. She
arrived in Tunisia with a cohort of migrants all subjected to sexual violence in Libya. The text
presented in her drawing describes the conditions of her life before and during migration which
turned out for her unexpectedly.

Photo 5 Akidoo’s drawing of herself post Libya migration experience
Drawing description: What I planned, it is not what I am seen

Also, other participants felt distressed by not telling their family about their interrupted journeys and stay
in Tunisia. They pretended they were already in Europe to not worry their relatives and to maintain
their reputation. These accounts emphasise the weight of unmet family’s expectations present in
these displaced women’s lives. In addition, most women talked about an endless waiting for
resettlement and how a long waiting exacerbated their psychological distress severely, often
undermining their physical health by creating heart disease symptoms, for example.

The Untold Stories Project by University of Birmingham and University of Maryland, along with the
Doctors of the World Belgium in Tunisia, acknowledge the challenges forced migrants face in difficult
migratory experiences and calls for increased commitments and resources to support mental health
needs of forced migrants in Tunisia. Women involved in the project have shown incredible courage
to share their life experiences with others. They continue to write their life narratives with hope for
a better tomorrow.