By Monia Ghanmi
Tunisia is pledging to put an end to the sales of smuggled fuel from neighbouring countries following complaints from gas station owners troubled by a sharp drop in sales.
Often used as a way for unemployed youth to make due, hydrocarbon smuggling in Tunisia dates back several years. In the past, the practice was restricted to border areas near Algeria and Libya. But in the wake of the January 14th revolution, the phenomenon has spread nationwide, particularly in inland areas.
The growing demand of drivers for smuggled fuel has affected the sales of petrol station owners, with the businesses protesting financial losses.
Mustapha ben Tkiya, official spokesperson for the National Chamber of Agents and Owners of Gas and Service Stations, confirmed that sales dropped significantly this year, adding that some stations were threatened with closure as a result of rampant smuggling and roadside petrol sales.
During the period from January 2011 to January 2012, petrol station sales dropped by up to 80% in southern and north-western provinces, 60% in mid-region provinces and the coast, 30% in Cap Bon, and 20% in greater Tunis.
Gas station owner Samir Ben Fadhloune told Magharebia that his station now pumps gas only to some administrative vehicles and some drivers who reject the hydrocarbons that are sold in parallel markets, given that most of clients now get their fuel on the black market.
“Most stations incurred big losses to the point we became unable to pay our workers, taxes, water and electricity,” he said.
Ben Fadhloune has urged the authorities concerned to confront the smuggling of hydrocarbons inside the country and to put an end to parallel points of sale because he believes they are harmful to one of the most vital sectors in national economy.
He called for co-ordinating efforts between Libya, Tunisia and Algeria to regulate the trade and find legal solutions for it, whether by tightening control on the borders or concluding agreements between the governments of three countries so that Tunisians may benefit from the discounted prices of Libyan or Algerian petrol.
Tunisia has about 900 gas stations employing 15,000 workers. The price of petrol per litre runs about $0.90 at gas stations in Tunisia compared to $0.50 for fuel smuggled from Algeria and Libya.
The Tunisian government promised to find solutions for the phenomenon.
The Secretary of State at the Ministry of Finance pledged to stop the practice during a February 22nd meeting with the association representing petrol station owners. The official said the government planned to intensify control campaigns in co-operation with the interior and trade ministries.
Black market fuel sellers expressed their willingness to stop smuggling petrol provided that the government help them find other livelihoods that would guarantee them a decent life.
“Most of fuel sellers are unemployed young people who were forced by their social circumstances to sell it illegally so as to provide for their financial needs and support their families,” said Issam Ben Saàd. “If the state decides to prevent us from engaging in this activity, it has to find alternatives for us so that we may not return to unemployment.”