Tunisian border traders, smugglers struggle to survive amid COVID

In Ben Guerdane, a town in Tunisia’s far southeast straddling marshes, the sea, and the Libyan border, rows of stalls selling smuggled fuel sit shuttered. Only one stall is open.

Out front, Tarek sits in a burnous, a woollen hooded Tunisian cloak. Behind him, plastic jerrycans full of diesel are stocked in the shade of his stall.

“We gather the fuel that traders bring across from Libya, store it, and sell it here,” Tarek said.

“But for the eight months that the borders were closed [due to coronavirus measures], we didn’t work a day. We sat at home.”

Abdelbassat, another fuel seller who works with Tarek, said: “I’m thinking of leaving Tunisia on a boat. I know hundreds like me who’ve already left. There’s no work here.”

Last week, Tunisia’s economic grievances were brought into sharper focus as the country marked 10 years since the fall of former leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Protests have broken out in recent days in major cities demanding jobs, dignity and the release of detainees, with COVID-19 restrictions compounding a wider economic malaise.

In the long-neglected, impoverished southeast of Tunisia, the economy largely depends on a mix of legal cross-border trade and the smuggling of everything from fuel to electronics to food and even weapons.

But strict coronavirus restrictions have hit border trade hard and further inflamed a social and economic crisis.

While the southeast has not experienced significant protests recently, many people in the region are now leaving for Europe on perilous Mediterranean journeys.

Closed border

Rahdouane Azlouk, a border trader in Ben Guerdane, told Al Jazeera the borders with Libya were completely closed from March 16 until November 14.

“The only sector in Tunisia not touched by the border closures might be agriculture,” said Azlouk.

But even after borders reopened, anti-COVID measures have made business slow and limited.

“Now we need a COVID-19 test no more than three days before we go to Libya with a negative result. If not, we need to go into quarantine.”

Azlouk said traders have now set up special routes to limit contact with others, and minimise the risk of spreading the coronavirus.

He said that the border traders must be allowed to work, or else “much of Tunisia’s southeast will continue to crumble”.

“Traders change money, they bring cheap fuel, they [supply] the phone shops with SIM cards, they bring food from Libya, they help cafés, they help hospitals and pharmacies with medicines. This is all because the products in Libya are cheaper,” he said.According to Adel Abdelkbir, a border trader in Ben Guerdane who says he legally brings fuel from Libya to Tunisia, protests and blocking by traders and their families of the roads in September and October eventually forced the government to reopen the borders on November 14.

During the border lockdown, Abdelkbir borrowed from friends and used credit to get by.

While the opening of the borders may have taken some of the pressure off, anti-COVID measures are cutting a big chunk out of the decent living he used to make – now he barely gets by.

“I used to make three trips across the border per day,” he said. “Now it’s only one.”

He said a COVID test involves a one-hour drive to a test centre and costs 209 dinars ($77) each time.

“Now I’m left with an average of 30 dinars ($11) per day from business,” he said – less than a third of his previous earnings.

Infections rising

As of Thursday, the North African country of 11.5 million people had reported 188,373 infections and 5,921 deaths from COVID-19.

Infections dipped after Tunisia reported its highest tally of 5, 752 infections on October 17, but have climbed again in January – recording 3,890 infections on Thursday.

The death rate across the country is averaging more than 40 a day and 77 percent of intensive care unit beds across the country are now occupied, according to official figures.

The regional health office in Medenine governorate, where Ben Guerdane is located, reported on Thursday that intensive care units in its public and private hospitals have reached 100 percent capacity. Infection cases in the governorate surpassed 5,000, with 196 deaths as of last week.

Meanwhile, the World Bank projects at least a 7.3 percent rise in poverty in Tunisia during the pandemic, and said the southeast would be among the hardest hit.

According to official Tunisian statistics, Medenine governorate has a poverty rate of 21.7 percent.

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