International Alert has launched a new report that sheds light on the experiences of young smugglers in the marginalised Kasserine region of Tunisia, at a time when the country is facing heightened security concerns, political uncertainty and large-scale unemployment.
The report is based on the findings of over 20 interviews with young people aged between 18 and 34, including women engaged in the ‘suitcase trade’ (hiding items in their suitcases when crossing the border). It highlights the complex socio-economic and political relationships they enter through involvement in border economies.
Young smugglers in Kasserine, which borders Algeria, face daily struggles to make a living and evade crackdowns by the police and customs officers. Studying their everyday experiences provides a useful perspective for understanding the unequal relationships and sources of injustice and ostracism they are facing.
The report forms part of Alert’s ‘Borders for all’ project, which explores community perceptions of security threats and smuggling in Tunisia. It identifies two phases of smuggling following the fall of former President Ben Ali in 2011. Immediately following his ousting, the country’s security forces were weakened and delegitimised by their role in the repression of the popular uprising. Then, in 2013 there was a renewed deployment of the security forces, with the fight against terrorism and a toughening of controls on smuggling networks.
Alert’s research fills an important gap, telling the stories of subsistence and survival strategies by individuals and communities in this marginalised region, who view smuggling as a legitimate and normal way of making a living. It identifies five loosely defined groups, but rather than seeking to establish typologies the report instead describes individuals’ journeys, which take into account wider social dynamics.
The stories that emerge reveal that smuggling encompasses a number of different survival strategies with a common thread of resistance to exclusion. The security approach to controlling smuggling is not capable of containing this illegal cross-border activity in the absence of alternative sources of income.
The report therefore argues that, to secure the border, a distinction must be drawn between smugglers and criminals in a way that avoids criminalising poverty and stigmatising local communities that are seeking a means of subsistence.