Tunisians plan mass emigration to Italy in protest over football club row

Nick Squires
·2-min read
Tunisian youths prepare to burn tyres and block the road leading to Chebba to protest against the decision of the Tunisian Football Federation to freeze the activities of their team - AFP
Tunisian youths prepare to burn tyres and block the road leading to Chebba to protest against the decision of the Tunisian Football Federation to freeze the activities of their team - AFP

Poverty and lack of opportunity are what normally propel migration from Tunisia, but one town has its sights set on crossing the Mediterranean to Italy because of a row over its football club.

Around 2,000 people from the coastal town of Chebba are preparing to board an armada of small boats in protest at their team, Club Sportif Chebba, being banned from the Tunisian football federation because of an incomplete membership application.

The ban followed months of tension between the president of the club and the head of the national football federation.

Angry fans took to the streets of the town, which lies south of Tunis, setting car tyres alight and blocking roads in protest at the suspension.

Their fury unassuaged, some of them are now planning to migrate, en masse and illegally, to Italy.

Hundreds of people in the town have registered for the illegal crossing to Italy
Hundreds of people in the town have registered for the illegal crossing to Italy

The tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, which has received tens of thousands of asylum seekers over the years, lies across the water to the east of Chebba.

"In response to the silence of the authorities, residents have decided to leave the country and head for Italy," Mohamed Ali Abbas, a local organiser, told AFP news agency.

Organisers have even gone so far as to erect tents in the local port where people can register for the journey. More than 1,300 people, including women and children, have signed up.

The sea crossings were scheduled for Thursday but have been postponed because of bad weather.

There has been a surge in the number of Tunisians trying to reach Italy by boat in recent months.

Most say they are driven by the dismal state of the economy, with unemployment now around 18%.

Tourism had already been badly hit by terrorist attacks in recent years but it has been hammered further by the coronavirus pandemic.

A popular revolution in 2011 failed to turn the country’s fortunes around, leading to disappointment and anger for millions.

Since the beginning of the year, more than 24,000 people have taken the so-called Central Mediterranean route from North Africa to Italy and Malta. Of those, 40 per cent were Tunisian, according to Frontex, the EU’s border agency.

In the past, most migrants from Tunisia to Europe were single young men, but this year they have been joined by entire families, some of them formerly middle-class with good prospects.

One group made the headlines in August when they turned up by boat on Lampedusa with sunglasses, suitcases, and a pet poodle on a lead.

Tunisians are rarely considered eligible for asylum and those that do not escape holding centres are repatriated.