TUNIS, Tunisia — In a photo posted in November, 18-year-old Sabee al Saidi is shown wearing bright-pink lipstick as she leans from the side of a rickety wooden boat, a calm blue sea stretched out behind her. In a video, she smiles alongside a dozen other migrants, gesturing to a popular rap song.
The two Tunisian women have sparked controversy with their posts — which show them on seemingly carefree trips across the Mediterranean, landing in Lampedusa, Italy, and then traveling around European cities taking selfies next to landmarks as they sport popular fashion brands. Many criticized them for “normalizing” a journey that leaves thousands dead each year.
According to the Missing Migrants Project, 2,048 people went missing in the Mediterranean in 2021, with 23,000 missing since 2014. Experts warn that al Saidi and Ben Mahmoude — social media influencers in Tunisia, with nearly 2 million followers on TikTok and Instagram between them — could inspire others to make the dangerous crossing.
“Social media is putting out a vision of Europe that is not accurate,” said Matt Herbert, research manager at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.
In the past, he said, the driver for migration was “the diaspora coming home for the summer. People would see their cousins wearing new, expensive clothes and aspire to be like that.”
“With social media, it’s much more in your face and more accessible to everybody,” Herbert said.
Tunisia is one of the main departure points for migrants setting off from North Africa to Europe, with thousands of Tunisians joining those making the journey from elsewhere in Africa and the Middle East each year. While Tunisia was once a popular tourist destination with a burgeoning middle class, as the country’s economy deteriorated — with an 18% unemployment rate exacerbated by the impact of COVID-19 — migration attempts have soared.
In 2021, authorities intercepted more than 23,000 migrants trying to leave Tunisian shores. This number is starkly higher than in 2019, when around 5,000 people were intercepted, and dwarfs numbers recorded over the last decade.
A report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime pins the surge on rising unemployment and pessimism about Tunisian leaders’ ability to improve the situation. Last July, following nationwide anti-government protests, President Kais Saied suspended parliament and took on sweeping powers, raising fears of democratic backsliding.
The journey across the Mediterranean is known locally as the “harka” — a reference to the figurative “burning” of borders and the destruction of personal documents before undertaking the perilous crossing. The clandestine intrigue once surrounding the …….