TUNIS, TUNISIA (AP) – In a photo posted in November, 18-year-old Sabee al Saidi wears bright-pink lipstick as she leans from the side of a 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. A month later, Chaima Ben Mahmoude, 21, posted a similar video, waving as she made the crossing from Tunisia to Italy with her fiance in a boat crowded with migrants.
The two Tunisian women have sparked controversy with their posts – which show them on seemingly carefree trips across the Mediterranean, landing in Italy, and then travelling around Europe taking selfies next to landmarks. Many criticised them for “normalising” 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 two million followers between them – could inspire others to make the dangerous crossing.
Tunisia is a main departure point for migrants setting off from North Africa to Europe. In 2021, authorities intercepted over 23,000 migrants trying to leave Tunisian shores.
While al Saidi’s and Ben Mahmoude’s posts sparked criticism, many also came to their defence, highlighting how some see the crossing as the only way to escape the country amid growing frustration over European Union visa restrictions.
“Shame on her? More like, it’s a shame for us!” posted one TikToker in response to criticism of al Saidi’s video. “She managed to make it to Italy, while we’re all stuck here in Tunisia.”
As she underwent two weeks’ COVID-19 quarantine at a detention centre in Italy, Ben Mahmoude told The Associated Press she understood the risks of the journey. But financial difficulties and her inability to get a visa had “forced” her to do the crossing.
“I didn’t find anything for myself in Tunisia,” she said in an interview conducted through Zoom.
“I have a diploma in hairdressing and I couldn’t get any work in this field… When I did, the monthly salary was really hopeless – around TND350 (USD120). You cannot do anything with that. You can just use public transport and buy your lunch – that’s it.” Ben Mahmoude said all it took was a call to a friend of a friend. She then paid TND4,500 dinar (USD1,560) for a place in the boat alongside 23 others.
Despite her smiles in the photos, Ben Mahmoude said the journey was terrifying.
“The fear was extraordinary, the sea was really agitated and there were lots of high waves,” she said. “In the boat, we said a prayer and prepared ourselves for death.”
Wael Garnaoui, a psychologist researching the crossing, said the hope of a better life in Europe is largely based on “the migration lie”, which he said has been intensified by social media.
In the weeks since al Saidi and Ben Mahmoude made it to Europe, they have documented their shopping sprees, rides in BMWs and picture-perfect lattes. The photos and videos of their crossings garnered hundreds of thousands of likes and shares.
Garnaoui said people see others go to Europe and observe their apparent success. They think they can easily get papers, work and money. The reality is often very different: 2020 data from the European Commission showed that the unemployment rate for migrants was nearly 14 per cent, compared to about six per cent for the native-born population.