A Case Study of the Financial Health of Sub-Saharan Migrants: Main Challenges and Strategies in Navigating their Journeys in Tunisia

By Ingrid Magalhaes (MALD ’22), in collaboration with Fletcher’s Journeys Project and Professor Kim Wilson

What are some of the main challenges a migrant faces when moving to a new country in search of better opportunities? This is certainly a difficult question that requires one to investigate multiple aspects of a migration process and migrants’ séjour in a given country. This article summarizes a case study conducted by Jeremiah Gatlin and myself under the supervision of Professor Kimberly Wilson as part of the Journeys Project.1 The case study analyzes the well-being of sub-Saharan migrants who migrated to Tunisia seeking better economic, professional, and educational opportunities. The study is based on thirty interviews conducted in 2019, where twenty-four were sub-Saharan migrants from Ivory Coast, Senegal, Liberia, and Cameroon. The remaining six individuals worked in formal institutions within Tunisia, including international and non-governmental organizations, and a local private bank.  

Although the motivations for each migrant varied considerably, in general, migrants identified two primary reasons for migration to Tunisia: employment opportunities and education. The study looks at two different segments of migrants who are led by such reasons: 1) workers pursuing better economic opportunities; and 2) students seeking affordable, quality education. We analyzed these interviews from a financial perspective, seeking to understand the types of challenges these migrants faced and the type of strategies they utilized to overcome such challenges. Based on our findings, we offer some policy recommendations to help improve both Tunisia’s economic growth and migrants’ overall financial health vis-à-vis such challenges.  

Preliminary Findings 

In analyzing their journeys through financial lenses, we found that socioeconomic backgrounds played a significant role in the type of strategies each migrant segment used to navigate challenges in Tunisia. For some, their socioeconomic and cultural background positively impacted their financial health. Professional and educational experiences prior to migrating enhanced their financial opportunities once in Tunisia. Migrants with a higher socioeconomic status were able to better navigate financial challenges and debt by developing strategies that circumvent costs related to housing and transportation. Student migrants usually displayed higher levels of financial health given that their lawful status allows them to access more services. They also accessed broader and wealthier social networks. As Gatlin noted in the report, students with prior work experience tended to utilize a wider set of financial strategies and avoided exploitation more often.  

Migrant workers, however, faced greater challenges given their lack of legal status, which prevented them from acquiring residency and work permits. Given these challenges, migrant workers usually utilized informal networks to secure housing and employment prior to arrival. Such networks, despite helping migrants in some forms, still did not provide accurate information about working and housing conditions, which led to many migrants experiencing exploitation, racism, and abuse. Challenges aside, some migrant workers were able to manage such difficulties through strengthening their networks and utilizing strategies based on lessons learned throughout their journeys. Typically, the longer their séjour in Tunisia, the better coping mechanisms and strategies were formed.  

Main Challenges 

  1. Irregular legal status limits migrants’ access to employment and services 

One of the main challenges that migrant workers face in Tunisia is the lack of a regular legal status. In order to stay lawfully in the country, individuals must acquire a residence permit.2 However, this is not an easy task. Residence permits are only issued on a temporary basis to migrants that meet specific criteria. Such restrictions on acquiring a residence permit automatically undermine migrants’ eligibility to receive a work permit since it can only be acquired with a valid residency card.3 Similarly, work permits are usually temporary and only given when proven that a Tunisian national cannot fulfill a position.  

In order to meet their basic needs, migrants without work permits engage in informal activities that leave them vulnerable to exploitation. Since the Tunisian Labor Code does not offer any work provisions that protect migrants from exploitations,4 migrants are unable to seek any legal protection or redress. This was the case of many of our respondents, including a labor migrant from Ivory Coast who shared that once they arrived in Tunisia, their salary was cut in half in order to cover the penalty fees. Four years after their arrival, they never received any compensation. Additionally, Tunisian law5 requires overstayers to pay a penalty fee of 20 dinars per week upon departing the country.6 Since the penalties are cumulative, migrants feel trapped because they lack the ability to regularize their status and the financial resources to pay their debt. These penalties impose great financial constraints and psychological burden on migrants as illustrated by many of our respondents’ stories.  

Without legal status, Sub-Saharan migrants working informally in Tunisia lack the protections afforded under Tunisian law.7 As a result, Sub-Saharan migrants are unable to report chronic abuses and exploitation by employers. The most common forms of exploitation identified were wage theft, long working hours without breaks, and wages well-below the national minimum wage. Employers often refused to pay migrants at the end of the month and forced them to continue working with the promise of future pay. 

2. Racism impairs migrants’ ability to financially strategize  

Racism is part of the daily lives of sub-Saharan migrants in Tunisia. A study conducted by the Tunisian Forum for Socio-Economic Rights reveals that more than 50 percent of the sub-Saharan migrants in Tunisia have been exposed to “acts of racism” and to “the hatred” of Tunisians.8 The study found that 89 percent of sub-Saharan migrants had experienced racism through name-calling, in addition to nearly 34 percent who experienced physical assault.9  

These data are corroborated by many of our respondents’ stories who also reported facing racism in some form, either through language, behavior, and financial exploitation. One example of racist behavior that imposes a financial cost is the inflated rate on taxi fares that drivers often charge. Such a behavior undermines the financial health of migrants, directly and indirectly, as they are often forced to spend more due to discriminatory attitudes based on their race.  

Some migrants also experienced racism through the use of language. Two types of racist language appear prevalent for migrants: first, the use of derogatory names; and second, the utilization of the Arabic language instead of French by some of the university professors. The former is reflected in many of our respondents’ experiences, including a male Ivorian migrant, who was once called “Kahla” (female gendered), a derogatory term for “black person” that is used against Sub-Saharans and other foreigners in Tunisia.

3. Information gaps contribute to exploitation and financial instability 

Information sharing is one of the main factors that influenced migrants’ decision to go to Tunisia. It usually takes place through relatives and friends who are already working or studying in Tunisia, and thus they decide to share information with individuals in their countries of origin in hopes of attracting them to Tunisia. In some cases, migrant workers receive information about potential employment opportunities with promises of better pay. Upon arrival in Tunisia, however, migrant workers would realize that such promises were inaccurate, often leading to exploitation or forced labor. Among work migrants, common information gaps identified included misunderstanding employment opportunities and the legal constraints to employment; a lack of knowledge about trafficking, especially within domestic labor; widespread exploitation through wage theft; and lack of proper compensation. 

Similarly, misinformation brought instability to student migrants who came to Tunisia with high hopes of acquiring a better education at an affordable cost. The Tunisian government awards scholarships to sub-Saharan migrants as a way to make Tunisia an attractive destination. Students are allowed to live in the university halls free of cost and eat at the university restaurant for a very modest fee. However, the conditions in such halls are precarious and unsanitary, forcing most students to seek alternative housing and thus increasing their monthly expenses. The lack of information about scholarships and accurate living expenses creates instability for student migrants. Delayed stipend payments add to the uncertainty as students do not always know when and how much money they will receive. In order to remedy this situation, students rely on money transfers and borrowing to pay for immediate expenses.  

Mitigation Strategies 

  1. Expansion of Kinship Networks 

Kinship network is a structure that forms around individuals who share a connection either through “filiation, marriage, or gender.”10 These categories allow individuals to rely on each other and create an informal support system where the sharing of information and exchange of services become important resources for potential migrants. In this case study, such a structure allowed a few prospective migrants to find initial accommodation and employment prior to moving to Tunisia. Additionally, these networks enabled all migrants to navigate life in Tunisia through information sharing, lending and borrowing, paying for immediate expenses, and finding more promising employment opportunities.  

Within Tunisia, kinship networks proved the most valuable tool for migrants to meet their basic needs and guard against financial shocks. Almost all students reported receiving money from their kinship network, and labor migrants often borrowed and lent money to pay for immediate expenses. We noticed that sub-Saharan migrants tend to prefer engaging in such informal financial activities with other individuals who share a similar background. Such kinship networks do not only provide a foundation for financial support, but they also create a supportive system in a plethora of other ways, including information sharing about services in healthcare, childcare, and moral support.  

2. Information sharing as a tool to circumvent exploitation  

Information sharing has become an important tool for migrants to establish their life and navigate challenges in Tunisia. Additionally, migrants reported making decisions on employment and housing based on information they received from other migrants. The dangers of employment exploitation appeared the most prevalent form of information sharing. One of our respondents from Ivory Coast shared that they usually speak with one another about their compensation and salary rates. When they realize they have been underpaid, they usually share their experience with others in order to avoid future exploitation of other “brothers” and “sisters.” 

Several migrants also explained how they have warned others in their kinship networks not to migrate to Tunisia. While it is unclear the overall effect this has had on migration strategies within these communities, we noticed that many migrants share their experiences as a warning for those aspiring better working opportunities, but who, in reality, do not know the dangers of working informally in Tunisia.  

3. Utilizing hawala networks as a financial strategy 

One of our main observations include the use of hawala networks as a financial strategy in order to avoid high transfer and service fees involving international transactions. Hawala is an informal method of transferring money that does not require actual cash movement given that it takes place between individuals who usually have cash reserves in their country of origin, making it easier to complete international transactions without having to transfer money abroad. The migrant usually gives the amount to a broker who will contact someone at the country of origin to complete the transfer to the migrant’s family or friends there. The method is mainly based on trust that the broker will fulfill their part of the agreement.   

The restrictive limitations for migrants to receive a residence card does not only restrict sub-Saharan migrants’ ability to work formally, but also prevents them from having access to formal financial services in Tunisia. In order to open a bank account, an individual must present a residence card, which makes it practically impossible for migrant workers to utilize this formal service. Hence, most of them rely on the hawala networks to send remittances home or receive financial support from abroad. Despite the common use of these informal financial services, we noticed that many migrant workers lacked a large network that would allow them to transfer funds directly to relatives at home, which would make them seek brokers with ample kinship networks within Tunisia and their country of origin. 

4. Relying on formal and informal organizations  

Many respondents reported utilizing the services provided by formal organizations as a way to cope with financial difficulties. For example, some of the migrants acknowledged seeking financial assistance from the International Organization for Migration to pay for medical expenses, including hospital bills. Non-governmental organizations also play a role in offering migrants financial and legal assistance, including REACH.11 The organization provides humanitarian aid and critical information to policymakers, development and humanitarian actors. However, due to the strict migration laws and the lack of access to formal employment based on lack of work and residence permits, the efforts of organizations like REACH often fall short due to current policy restrictions. Because of such limitations, migrants often develop their social networks within their ethnic or religious groups.  

Migrants frequently resorted to informal organizations that are usually formed based on common national origin or socioeconomic backgrounds to overcome the challenges they faced. For example, a student migrant founded an Ivorian Association with the goal to provide financial and moral support to Ivorian students in Tunisia by offering students a more easily accessible channel for lending and borrowing money to pay for immediate and unexpected expenses.  

Looking Forward 

When offering some recommendations to help improve the financial health of sub-Saharan migrants in Tunisia, we identified one main area that needs to be prioritized: Tunisia’s legal system. Currently, there are laws that criminalize any support granted to irregular migrants, including assistance provided by international and non-governmental organizations. Our first recommendation would be to reform such laws as they only exacerbate the exploitation of migrants and contribute to higher vulnerability. As Gatlin stated, such crimmigration policies12 undermine any effort to provide legal, financial, and health support to migrants in Tunisia, while forcing migrants to rely on informal strategies to improve their financial health.  

Another recommendation within Tunisia’s legal sector is the reduction of the penalty fees that migrants must pay once they overstay their tourist status, in addition to allowing them to pay for such fees through a payment plan. Generally, migrants who overstayed their tourist status must pay for the fees at the end of their stay when leaving the country. This policy does not provide much flexibility as many migrants are unable to afford paying for the fee as a condition to return home, forcing them to remain in Tunisia despite all the hardships and exploitation they often face. 

Finally, our last recommendation is to allow migrant workers to obtain residence and work permits. As Gatlin acknowledges, these strict labor codes and the criminalization of migrant workers has prevented the integration of migrant workers and students into the economy. These policies directly undermine migrants’ and students’ ability to obtain formal employment, often allowing for exploitation. A change in the permits granted to both segments would not only increase accessibility to employment for migrants, but it would also improve Tunisia’s economic growth by maximizing migrants’ contribution through an increase in tax revenues and consumption of services and goods.   


About the Author

Ingrid graduated with honors from Smith College with a major in Government and a certificate in International Relations. Ingrid studied abroad at the Graduate Institute for International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland, in both French and English. While in Switzerland, she interned at Plan International and represented the organization at the United Nations Headquarters by delivering an oral statement at the 37th and 38th sessions of the UN Human Rights Council. Prior to coming to Fletcher, Ingrid worked as a Legal Assistant at a public interest law firm in Washington, D.C. where she helped advance women’s rights and fight against gender-based discriminatory practices at workplaces. While at Fletcher, Ingrid interned for Albright Stonebridge Group where she worked closely with the America’s Practice group, providing analytical information on political and economic developments from the Latin American region, especially from Brazil.

As a second-year MALD student, Ingrid is focusing her studies on the fields of “Conflict Resolution and International Negotiations,” and “Global Governance.” Her interests fall under the areas of refugee politics and human rights. Ingrid comes from Brazil and loves to spend her free time biking, cooking, and making music with her violin.

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