The Tunisia-Italy Mediterranean crossing is one of the main maritime routes into Europe. The number of Tunisians who attempt to reach Italy by boat has soared since the revolution. The crisis that has engulfed Tunisia following the overthrow of its previous regime has led thousands of women, men, and children to make this perilous journey.
As a result of Tunisia’s socio-economic and political difficulties, the number of Tunisians who traveled to Italy by boat last year was the highest since 2011. According to estimates by the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, 13,000 Tunisians reached Italian coasts by boat in 2020. Italy’s interior ministry said the number of those who reached Italian shores in May and June 2021 was more than triple that of last year’s figure.
In order to deter more immigrants from coming, the Italian government has put Tunisian citizens who do not have valid visas in detention centers. This deterrence strategy uses detention as a way to send a message to all those who may be considering immigration. Similar to the American government that detains undocumented Latin American families and children and to the Australian government that incarcerates refugee families and their children in both onshore and offshore facilities so that prospective immigrants fear the cost of migration, the Italian government uses detention as an immigration control and enforcement measure. The border-crossers who are the target of this detention-as-deterrence policy are both asylum-seeking and non-asylum-seeking migrants.
In her analysis of the use of detention as a deterrence strategy, Emily Ryo explains that 1) immigration detention takes place in jails or jail-like facilities, 2) confinement conditions are often worse than criminal imprisonment, and 3) detained immigrants themselves experience their detention as a form of punishment. Ryo highlights that these features of detention are precisely why some policymakers think that prospective immigrants will fear—and, hence, will be deterred by—detention. From a deterrence standpoint, detaining immigrants in these conditions functions as a punitive measure that aims to stop first-time crossers and repeat crossers from attempting to cross the Mediterranean on boats heading towards Italy. Yet the incarceration of Tunisian immigrants raises serious ethical questions because the facilities and conditions in which they are detained do not respect their basic human rights.
Bessem Bacha is a Tunisian young man who has decided to disclose these transgressions by exposing the cruelty of the Italian detention system on social media. Bacha uses this platform to allow Tunisian border-crossers to share their phone videos to document their devaluation and degradation. Through his YouTube channel, which is titled after his full name, Bacha has allowed imprisoned Tunisian immigrants to expose their mistreatment through footage that is smuggled out of the detention centers. The series of videos show us that the detention center is composed of rows of individual barracks that are separated by tall fences. In their videos, immigrants show boxes of food thrown on the floor, explaining that the food quality is so bad and so humiliating that they refuse to eat it despite their extreme hunger. Many of the teenagers who arrived in Italy by boat in July 2021 said they were given smelly food.
The videos show filthy toilets without doors. Immigrants said they are often left without toilet paper or water. The situation is more difficult for women and children. A Tunisian mother explains that her eight-year-old daughter cannot sit on the dirty toilet seat because its filth makes her worry about getting an infection. She also talks about the cockroaches, lack of privacy, and women’s discomfort as they change their clothes. The mother explains her worry over her daughter who cannot take a shower because the bathrooms are without doors, repeating that they share the bathrooms with men. In the following video, we see another Tunisian mother reiterate this message by highlighting the inhumane conditions in which she and her sick son have been kept, with no ability to take a shower, begging people to help them get out of their confinement.
Moreover, many of the children held on the island of Lampedusa in July 2021 were crammed into a detention center with adults in a roofless space under the scorching summer sun. Here, a ten-year-old begs the Italian authorities to give him some sun protection. At night, these children felt cold because they were not given sheets or blankets. Immigrant children, teenagers, and adults have all been put in tight, crowded spaces in total disregard for the risk of COVID-19 transmission. The following video shows immigrant teenagers pointing at some of their roommates who are COVID-19 positive, but have not been separated from them. The immigrant who made the video tells us that the people locked in the room are all minors and shows us some other adolescents who complain about being put with people infected with COVID-19 and ask for a solution.
The credibility of the videos uploaded on Bacha’s YouTube channel and shared on his Facebook page has made their message very powerful. The footage has also been shared by many of Bacha’s followers. The comments of these social media users reflect their shock and anger at the mistreatment of immigrants. Through these social media platforms, Tunisian citizens in Tunisia and abroad have been able to watch and comment on the situation of their fellow detained Tunisians. In this case, YouTube and Facebook have been important enablers of forbidden reportage and information transmission. Bacha’s YouTube channel and Facebook page have become platforms for an information campaign and a tool of resistance and political activism.
By making videos that document these abuses, immigrants participate in exposing the hidden Italian incarceration system. The silence imposed on Italian detention centers makes immigrants’ videos a form of cyberactivism. Each immigrant’s phone has become a tool to transmit their voice to the outer international community. Through these videos, each immigrant has become a cyber activist involved either in filming the detention center or in giving additional testimonies of what they have seen and endured. Both video-makers and participants in these videos create a historical record that documents these abuses. The archive created by migrants’ cyberactivism is crucial in countering and correcting the official discourse, which misrepresents them as “illegal criminals” who “threaten” the peace of the EU. The smuggled footage gives us the story behind the story.
The videos, which immigrants have been broadcasting, unveil the dehumanization of the undocumented migrants who are treated like subhumans. Accordingly, they make those who watch them question the “menace” border-crossers pose to Fortress Europe. These videos have allowed detained immigrants to communicate—through fences—with the outside community. While I am not a fan of the social media enthusiasts who amplify the positive role of social media to the extent of reducing the Tunisian Revolution to a Facebook and/or Twitter uprising, in this case, social media has given the silenced and marginalized immigrants a channel through which their subaltern voices can be heard. However, while this shows the importance of social media when authorities prevent media coverage of detention centers, it also points at a subtle deterrence strategy used by the Italian government.
Although the Italian authorities were able to confiscate all phones, they did not do so in order to let Tunisian detainees show their fellow citizens the fate that awaited anyone who might be considering immigration. This is reminiscent of the Australian government that “let” Behrouz Boochani send videos from the Manus Detention Center/Prison to activists in different countries in order to stop more Kurds and Iranians from coming to Australia by boat. If the authorities that coerce immigrants and refugees close their eyes on their embarrassing YouTube and Whatsapp videos, they do so in order to deter more unwanted immigrants and asylum seekers from attempting the sea crossing. While incarcerated border-crossers consider their videos to be a way to testify and shame the governments that speak in the name of human rights, authorities perceive them as deterrents. The double-function of these videos points at the intensity of border violence and the ugliness of border politics.