Tunisia lacks key legislations to protect the economic rights and livelihoods of refugees and migrants and many must turn to informal work, rendering their contributions to the Tunisian economy largely unrecognized, according to a recent report by the Mixed Migration Centre (MMC) in cooperation with the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

The report “Hidden hardship of an unnoticed workforce: The economic lives of refugees and migrants in Tunisia” was conducted this year and was launched in November 2021 by MMC, a global research hub on mixed migration part of the Danish Refugee Council (DRC),  and the Heinrich Böll Foundation, a German human rights and environment-focused organization.

According to the report, bilateral agreements between Tunisia and many African countries offering their nationals visa-on-arrival have led to a diversification in profiles of migrants. In addition, Tunisia has become “a hub for study” for many African students and a safe haven for migrants fleeing detention and poor conditions in Libya.

However, they are often employed in the informal sector in generally low-skill jobs, vulnerable to discrimination and without legal protection, according to the report.

“Tunisia in general is not considered as an intended destination by most refugees or migrants, let alone for labour opportunities,” said Mr. Jim van Moorsel, Research Specialist at MMC North Africa, and co-author of the report, in a virtual interview from Tunis.

“Tunisia for some might be a safe destination that they chose after experiencing protection concerns elsewhere but it is also home to certain risks. This study underscores the need for policies that move people out of irregularity, prompt labour market integration, and attract talent from other parts of the African continent,” he added.

Like many countries around the world, Tunisian laws prioritize the employment of citizens, according to the report, and migrants who lack a legal status in the country or refugees, for whom the right to work is unclear, are vulnerable to exploitation by employers, including low or withheld wages. Moreover, they have no rights to social protection.

The report also reveals that some Sub-Saharan students in Tunisian universities receive grants that do not sufficiently cover their living expenses. While they cannot join the formal job market by law, they resort to informal jobs.

A young man is gardening in the property of his Tunisian boss. Zarzis, Tunisia, 21 May 2020. Photo: © Morgane Wirtz / Hans Lucas

For women migrants, domestic work is one of the main areas where they find employment, in addition to working in restaurants and the tourism industry. By contrast, men respondents reported finding work in construction and agriculture. Because of the apparent gendered patterns of labour market participation and women’s reliance on the service sector, women migrants appeared severely impacted by COVID-19 containment measures in Tunisia.

Moreover, in areas like the south of Tunisia, where jobs in the service sector were limited, women respondents cited challenges in finding work and being unable to be hired for construction jobs, which were more numerous.

Wages for migrants in Tunisia, according to the report, are often not sufficient for them to send remittances back home. Migrants also do not have easy access to the banking system, due to a lack of clarity on the documentation they require. On another note, those who overstay their visa also accumulate debt, leaving them with no options to leave the country but irregularly.

“For some, this might be the only way to leave. Because they cannot legally leave the country without paying this debt, which they may not be able to pay off until they get a decent job, which they cannot get without access to the legal labour market. It is this kind of cycle they cannot get out of,” said Mr. van Moorsel.

Over the past summer, the number of migrants taking the perilous trip to Europe by crossing the Mediterranean from Tunisia has increased with alarming fatalities’ rate. Governments in Tunisia and European countries have stepped up efforts to counter migrants’ smuggling and reduce irregular migration. NGOs also intensified their search and rescue operations of migrants stranded in the sea.

The report recommended legislative amendments to allow migrants to enter the formal job market, as well as, including them in national employment strategies. This would allow the state to maximize the benefit of their contribution to the economy in the form of taxes and added value that currently goes unrecognized.

“We need to demonstrate that refugees and migrants have a positive impact. I think that is something we need to focus on because it shows the impact they have on the economy and what they actually do to contribute to the country, which will have a wider positive impact towards integration, acceptance and tolerance and people seeing the benefits of migration,” he added.

Link to the full report: https://bit.ly/3HyBdwR

Link to the main findings: https://bit.ly/3oIayoH

For information requests about the study, please contact: north-africa@mixedmigration.org

SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities
SDG 8 - Decent Work and Economic Growth