Tunisian Southeast – In Ben Guerdane, a town in the far south-east of Tunisia, straddling the marshes, the sea and the Libyan border, rows of stalls selling contraband fuel are closed. Only one stand is open.
In front, Tarek is sitting in a burnous, a hooded Tunisian woolen coat. Behind him, plastic jerry cans filled with diesel are stored in the shade of his stall.
“We collect the fuel that traders bring from Libya, store it and sell it here,” Tarek said.
“But during the eight months that the borders have been closed [due to coronavirus measures], we haven’t worked a day. We sat at the house.
Abdelbassat, another fuel seller who works with Tarek, said: “I am thinking of leaving Tunisia on a boat. I know hundreds like me who have already left. There is no work here.
Tunisia’s economic grievances were brought to light last week as the country celebrated the 10th anniversary of the fall of former leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Protests have erupted in recent days in major cities demanding jobs, dignity and the release of detainees, with COVID-19 restrictions exacerbating wider economic malaise.
In poor and long neglected south-east of Tunisia, the economy largely depends on a mix of legal cross-border trade and smuggling of everything from fuel and electronics to food and even weapons. .
But strict coronavirus restrictions have hit border trade hard and exacerbated a social and economic crisis.
While the southeast has not seen significant manifestations recently, many people in the region are now leaving for Europe on perilous voyages to the Mediterranean.
Rahdouane Azlouk, a border trader in Ben Guerdane, told Al Jazeera that the borders with Libya were completely closed from March 16 to November 14.
“The only sector in Tunisia not affected by the border closures could be agriculture,” Azlouk said.
But even after the borders reopened, anti-COVID measures slowed down and limited business.
“Now we need a COVID-19 test no more than three days before going to Libya with a negative result. Otherwise, we have to go into quarantine. “
Azlouk said traders now have special routes in place to limit contact with others and minimize the risk of the coronavirus spreading.
He said border traders must be allowed to work, otherwise “much of south-eastern Tunisia will continue to collapse.”
“The traders change money, they bring cheap fuel, they [supply] phone shops with SIM cards, they bring food from Libya, they help cafes, they help hospitals and pharmacies with medicine. All because Libyan products are cheaper, ”he said.
According to Adel Abdelkbir, a border trader in Ben Guerdane who says he ships fuel legally from Libya to Tunisia, protests and the blocking by traders and their families of roads in September and October ultimately forced the government to reopen the roads. borders on November 14.
During the border lockdown, Abdelkbir borrowed from friends and used the credit to get by.
While the opening of the borders may have relieved some of the pressure, anti-COVID measures are reducing much of the decent life he used to earn – now he’s barely making it.
“I used to make three trips across the border a day,” he says. “Now it’s only one.
He said a COVID test involves an hour’s drive to a testing center and costs 209 dinars ($ 77) each time.
“Now I have an average of 30 dinars ($ 11) a day left in business,” he said – less than a third of his previous income.
Infections on the rise
The North African country of 11.5 million people reported 188,373 infections and 5,921 deaths from COVID-19 on Thursday.
Infections fell after Tunisia reported its highest total of 5,752 infections on October 17, but soared again in January – registering 3,890 infections on Thursday.
The death rate nationwide is on average more than 40 per day and 77% of intensive care unit beds across the country are now occupied, official figures show.
The regional health office of the governorate of Medenine, where Ben Guerdane is located, reported on Thursday that the intensive care units of its public and private hospitals had reached 100% of their capacity. Cases of infection in the governorate topped 5,000, with 196 deaths last week.
Meanwhile, the World Bank projects at least a 7.3% increase in poverty in Tunisia during the pandemic, and has said the southeast will be among the hardest hit.
According to official Tunisian statistics, the governorate of Medenine has a poverty rate of 21.7%.
Tunisia’s second official border post with Libya, Dhehiba in Tataouine governorate, more than 150 km (93 miles) to the south, was also closed due to the pandemic from March to November.
Dhaow Dehibi, a media activist and city teacher, noted that since Dhehiba was officially reclassified as a commercial passage in 2011, locals have come to rely on him for a living.
“There was a lot of movement crossing the border before,” Dehibi said. “Those who worked at the level crossing and the traders lived well. They ate the best food. They went on vacation.
“All activities have stopped [when the borders closed]”Dehibi said. The workers at the border post were unemployed. The carriers could not move the products. Cafes and restaurants closed. “
Even though the borders have reopened, anti-COVID measures have made the survival of border trade nearly impossible, Dehibi said.
With the nearest recognized COVID rapid test labs a three-hour drive away in Zarzis and Djerba, Dehibi and other activists are calling on the central government to at least facilitate testing.
“We called the Ministry of Health to request a rapid COVID testing center in Dhehiba. They said, “Why not?” But so far there has been no action, ”he said.
Ouni Ajil, journalist for Ben Guerdane, said that despite the intense economic effects of the border closure, “there has been no economic aid for traders from the government.”
The government did not respond to requests for comment.
Nationwide lockdown restrictions and a nighttime curfew since October to contain the spread of COVID-19 have continued to limit trade.
Riadh Béchir, president of the Association for the Development and Strategic Studies of Medenine, a non-governmental research organization, said that border trade – both legal and illegal – is an integral part of the economic engine of the south-east of Tunisia.
“There are thousands of traders who trade goods from Libya, such as food and building materials through the official Ras Jadir border post, or who smuggle certain items such as medicines and products subsidized through secret routes in the desert, ”he told Al Jazeera in an email.
Measures taken to tackle the spread of the coronavirus have inadvertently limited opportunities to make a living to the point that border residents themselves are now fleeing on boats bound for Europe.
Flee to Europe
“In Tunisia, since the beginning of , more than 12,500 Tunisians traveled [irregularly] by boat to Lampedusa, Italy, ”Bashir said.
“Migration has negative aspects, leaving even a shortage of local labor in areas such as construction, and an increase in the number of single women who [can’t find partners]Added Bashir.
The exodus of border traders in search of greater opportunities across the sea is unprecedented in south-eastern Tunisia, said Chaffar Abdessamad, senior migrant shelter coordinator at the International Organization for Migration, in Zarzis – a major starting point for illegal migrants.
“For us, it’s strange to see traders from Ben Guerdane trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. We know they [used to] make a lot of money from smuggling, ”Abdessamad said.
“But as they cross the sea, like many here in Zarzis, it might show that [they have] some big economic problems. “