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Family drawing by Samantha displaying her feelings of anger and her love for her children.
Drawing by Samantha reflecting on her journey and children left behind in Ivory Coast. Colère = anger.

The Untold Migrant Stories project aims to support the forced migrant survivors of gender-based violence (GBV) and trafficking to share their stories of survival and fortitude in precarious and protracted forced migration. The project engages with forced migrants whose journeys are interrupted post-Libya, now temporarily residing in Tunisia, and those who managed to arrive in Italy through the Mediterranean.

The Untold Migrant Stories workshop

The Untold Migrant Stories project invited several forced migrant women intercepted in Tunisia to share their stories in their native language through creative expression. In collaboration with the Doctors of the World (Médecins du Monde/MdM) Belgium in Tunisia, a psychosocial support session was held in Zarzis with six forced migrant and asylum-seeking women from Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast and Nigeria, now residing in Medenine and Zarzis. Their names in this post have been changed for safeguarding purposes.

Doctors of the World has been providing key life-saving health, and mental health support to distressed migrants, arriving in Tunisia, since 2015. 

What is psychosocial support for refugees?

In the context of displacement, psychosocial support activities aim to support the well-being of forced migrants. Activities are wide-ranging and can include arts, sports, cooking, and skills development.

In this psychosocial activity led by the MdM psychologist, Monia Ben Taleb, the participants shared their stories in a safe, women-only space, through arts and peer conversations. All participants had developed a trusting relationship with Monia during previous sessions. However, this was the first time participants came together for a group activity in which they talked with peers about their migration experiences. Participants supported each other emotionally through story-telling and active listening.

Most women talked about, drew or wrote about difficult experiences of forced migration, in which harm, endurance and lack of opportunities were common. The key themes centred on:

  • Women’s resilience and psychological distress
  • Uncertainty of waiting and feelings of incapacity and powerlessness
  • Interrupted journeys with some considering returning to Libya to once again take a dangerous sea-crossing to Europe.
A woman takes part in the workshop, drawing her family
A woman participating in a psychosocial activity with Doctors of the World in Zarzis.

What happens when forced migrants get to Tunisia?

Tunisia receives forced migrants daily, often arriving from Libya or being transported from the sea by rescue operations. Most individuals find themselves stuck in Tunisia with no opportunities to continue their journeys and being refused asylum claims, with a minority awaiting either resettlement or seeking temporary settlement in Tunisia. In Southern Tunisia some of the most vulnerable forced migrants can access international migrant or refugee shelters for a limited time with monthly vouchers, but most are required to find private accommodation promptly without support.

 

Participants felt distressed by not telling their family about their interrupted journeys and stay in Tunisia. They pretended they were already in Europe to avoid worrying their relatives and to maintain their reputation.

What happens in a forced migrant journey?

Many forced migrants experienced appalling abuses and mistreatments during their journeys; they were subjected to kidnapping, exploitation and sex trafficking, as described by Asiyah from Sierra Leone in a letter. Asiyah chose to write about her traumatic experiences from her home country, the refugee journey and her place of refuge. When sharing her letter with other participants, she talked with anger—on behalf of other migrant women—about the injustice they have faced and their interrupted journeys.

Asiyah's letter said: "90% of female migrants face rape, torture, slavery... 90% of male migrants face slavery, torture, and sometimes being abused by a guy or smugglers. Tunisia is not part of most migrants’ journey plan but migrants choose it for a temporary stay. Migrants also face a lot of racism in Tunisia and a lack of job opportunities."

Psychological distress and lost hope

Some women recalled the dangerous sea crossings made during their journeys as part of peer groups, some of whom witnessed people dying in the sea, before arriving to Tunisia. However, the most acute stressors generating psychological distress narrated by women were family issues in the country of origin, in addition to the traumas experienced during their journeys. They were worried about the situation of their children, parents and family members left behind, including various concerns from death to black magic.

Samantha from the Ivory Coast drew a boat which represented the journey to Europe she attempted to take, facing multiple dangers. She reflected on the pain of leaving four children behind at home, including a baby girl, and her continued concerns about their whereabouts. She felt upset that she was unable to achieve her goal of migration to support her family financially, as she did not manage to reach Europe. Instead, she confronted Tunisia where she struggled to access economic opportunities. Earlier Samantha carried hope for migration as means for improving her family welfare. But staying in Tunisia, she felt that she has failed her family and secretly conspired to return to Libya to re-attempt a sea-crossing towards Europe again. The poster below represents the pain and anger of a migrant mother having left her children behind, and the everyday longing to meet them again. Samantha imagined her children could join her one day in Tunisia.

A drawing of five children, with the words 'pain', 'project' and 'anger.'
3 Drawing by Samantha reflecting on her journey and children left behind in Ivory Coast. Douleurs = pain, Projet = project, Colère = anger.

Other participants felt angry that they failed in reaching their desired destinations to ensure a better future for their children. One survivor, however, had hope despite a self-perceived failure of migration. Victoria from Cameroon kept on smiling when drawing her poster. She said: “She wanted to cry, but she found her smile again,” despite unspeakable hardship in her migration journey, mistreatment in detentions in Libya and continued concerns about her children’s safety in Cameroon.

Other participants felt distressed by not telling their family about their interrupted journeys and stay in Tunisia. They pretended they were already in Europe to avoid worrying their relatives and to maintain their reputation. These accounts emphasise the weight of unmet family’s expectations present in these displaced women’s lives. In addition, most women talked about an endless waiting for resettlement and how this exacerbated their psychological distress severely, often undermining their physical health by creating heart disease symptoms, for example.

Forced migrants need our help 

The Untold Migrant Stories Project by University of Birmingham and University of Maryland, along with the Doctors of the World Belgium in Tunisia, acknowledge the challenges forced migrants face in difficult migratory experiences and calls for increased commitments and resources to support mental health needs of forced migrants in Tunisia. Women involved in the project have shown incredible courage to share their life experiences with others. They continue to write their life narratives with hope for a better tomorrow.