Southeast Tunisia – In Ben Guerdane, a town in the extreme south-east of Tunisia that stretches across swamps, the sea and the Libyan border, rows of stalls selling smuggled fuel are closed. Only one booth is open.

Tarek is sitting in the front in a burning Tunisian wool coat with a hood. Behind him there are plastic containers filled with diesel in the diesel at his stand.

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

“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 salesman who works with Tarek, said: “I am considering leaving Tunisia by boat. I know hundreds like me who have already left. There is no work here. “

Last week, Tunisia’s economic woes came under greater focus as the country celebrated Ben Ali 10 years after the overthrow of former leader Zine El Abidine.

Protests have erupted in major cities in recent days demanding jobs, dignity and the release of prisoners. COVID-19 restrictions exacerbated economic malaise.

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

But tough coronavirus restrictions have hit border trade hard, fueling a social and economic crisis.

While the Southeast has seen no significant protests of late, many people in the region are now traveling to Europe on dangerous Mediterranean voyages.

Tarek stores and sells oil from Libya [Pau Gonzalez/Al Jazeera]

Closed border

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

“The only sector in Tunisia that is not affected by the border closings could be agriculture,” said Azlouk.

But even after the borders were reopened, measures against COVID have made business slow and limited.

“Now we don’t need a COVID-19 test more than three days before we go to Libya with a negative result. If not, we have to go into quarantine. “

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

He said that the border traders are allowed to work, otherwise “a large part of southeastern Tunisia will continue to collapse”.

“Dealers change money, they bring cheap fuel, they [supply] The phone shops with SIM cards bring food from Libya, help cafes, and help hospitals and pharmacies with medicines. This is all because the products are cheaper in Libya, ”he said.

Azlouk graduated with a degree in geography in 2007 but was able to find only marginal work. Seven years ago he turned to border trade [Pau Gonzalez/Al Jazeera]According to Adel Abdelkbir, a border trader in Ben Guerdane, who says he is legally bringing fuel from Libya to Tunisia, protests and roadblocks by traders and their families in September and October finally forced the government to reopen the borders on November 14th .

During the border lockdown, Abdelkbir borrowed from friends and used loans to get through.

While opening the borders may have eased the pressure a bit, anti-COVID measures are cutting off a large chunk of his decent livelihood – now he’s barely getting through.

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

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

“Now I have an average of 30 dinars ($ 11) a day out of business,” he said – less than a third of his previous income.

Adel Abdelkbir is a border trader in Ben Guerdane who brings fuel from Libya to Tunisia [Paula Gonzalez/Al Jazeera]

Infections rise

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 fell after Tunisia reported the highest number of 5,752 infections on October 17, but rose again in January – 3,890 infections were recorded on Thursday.

The death rate across the country averages more than 40 per day and 77 percent of ICU beds across the country are now occupied, according to official figures.

The regional health bureau in Medenine governorate, where Ben Guerdane is located, reported Thursday that intensive care units in public and private hospitals are 100 percent full. Infection cases in the governorate topped 5,000, with 196 deaths since last week.

Meanwhile, during the pandemic, the World Bank predicts poverty will rise in Tunisia by at least 7.3 percent and said the southeast will be hardest hit.

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

Hundreds of shops line a road that leads from Ben Guardane to Libya. In the shops you can find cheaper Libyan products – everything from electronic goods to noodles [Paula Gonzalez/Al Jazeera]Tunisia’s second official border crossing with Libya, Dhehiba, in the Tataouine Governorate, more than 150 km south, was also closed from March to November because of the pandemic.

Dhaow Dehibi, a media activist and teacher in the city, noted that since Dhehiba’s official reclassification as a commercial crossing in 2011, residents have relied on it to make a living.

“There was a lot of movement at the border crossing before,” said Dehibi. “The ones who worked at the intersection and the traders lived well. They ate the best food. You went on vacation. “

“All activities have stopped [when the borders closed]”Said Dehibi.” The workers at the border station were unemployed. Transporters couldn’t move products. Cafes and restaurants closed. “

Although the borders have reopened, anti-COVID measures have made it nearly impossible to survive through the border trade, Dehibi said.

With the nearest recognized COVID rapid test laboratories three hours away in Zarzis and Djerba, Dehibi and other activists are calling on the central government to at least simplify testing.

“We called the Ministry of Health to inquire about a rapid COVID test center in Dhehiba. They said, “Why not?” But so far there have been no measures, ”he said.

Ouni Ajil, a journalist in Ben Guerdane, said that despite the intense economic impact of the border closings, “there has been no economic support for traders from the government”.

The government did not respond to requests for comment.

Nationwide lockdown restrictions and a nightly curfew since October to curb the spread of COVID-19 have continued to restrict trade.

Riadh Béchir, president of the Association for Development and Strategic Studies of Medenine, a nongovernmental research organization, said border trade – both legal and illegal – is an integral part of the economic engine in southeast Tunisia.

“There are thousands of traders who trade goods from Libya such as food and building materials through the official Ras Jadir border crossing or who smuggle items such as medicines and some subsidized products through secret routes in the desert,” he told Al Jazeera in an email.

Measures to combat the spread of coronavirus have inadvertently limited opportunities to make a living to the point that border traders are even now fleeing to Europe by boat.

Fuel traders keep fuel smuggled from Libya in sheds to protect it from the sun. Customers can buy a container or simply fill their vehicle tank directly [Paula Gonzalez/Al Jazeera]

Escape to Europe

“In Tunisia since the beginning of [2020]more than 12,500 Tunisians traveled [irregularly] by boat to Lampedusa, Italy, ”said Béchir.

“Migration has negative aspects, even a lack of local labor in areas such as construction and an increase in single women [can’t find partners]”Added Béchir.

The outflow of border traders looking for more opportunities across the sea is unprecedented in south-east Tunisia, said Chaffar Abdessamad, a senior coordinator for migrants at the International Organization for Migration in Zarzis – a key starting point for illegal migrants.

“It’s strange for us to see merchants from Ben Guerdane trying to cross the Mediterranean. We know you [used to] Make a lot of money smuggling, ”said Abdessamad.

“But since they are crossing the sea, like many here in Zarzis, this could show that [they have] some major economic problems. “

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