In late September, Tunisian human rights organisations shared footage of Tunisian officials apparently transporting a group of migrants to the border with Libya and abandoning them in the desert. The group, who had initially been intercepted at sea, included approximately one hundred men, women and children, including at least three pregnant women. One of the videos shows men, women, and children in a bus, heading for the Libyan border and another video shows a group of people in the desert on the border between Libya and Tunisia.
One of the migrants told France 24: “After they arrested us on the boats, they released the Tunisians and put the people from Sub-Saharan Africa in detention. Then, the next day, they made us get into buses, without telling us where we were going. … After driving for five hours, they broke us into groups and then loaded us into pickups bound for the desert. … We were abandoned in a zone that stretches for about 20km along the border between Libya and Tunisia. The officials showed us a path and told us to ‘follow the road down there’ towards Libya. … When several people spoke up and said that they wanted to stay in Tunisia, the National Guard threatened us, insulted us and hit us.”
On 10 November 2021, UN human rights experts–including the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants and the Special Rapporteur on torture–released a public condemnation of Tunisia’s collective expulsions of migrants and asylum seekers. The UN experts said that the expulsions may violate Tunisia’s obligations under international law and reminded Tunisia of its non-refoulement obligations, requiring that states do not return individuals to countries where they may be in danger of being subjected to torture, ill-treatment, arbitrary detention, or other irreparable harm.
While Tunisia has begun a national vaccination campaign against COVID-19, in August 2021, Infomigrants reported that undocumented migrants had been excluded from it. An expert with the Forum Tunisien pour les Droits Économiques et Sociaux (FTDES) said that to obtain a vaccination appointment, the registration platform requires proof of identity, passports, or residence cards. According to the International Organisation for Migration, migrants can use a consular card or a card issued by certain organisations to register for vaccination. However, for a “more efficient” system, the FTDES is requesting the regularisation of undocumented migrants living in the territory, “even if only provisional,” so that migrants can be protected.
In addition to the exclusion from the vaccination campaign, undocumented migrants and asylum seekers are suffering from the economic slowdown caused by COVID-related health restrictions. In Tunisia, most undocumented migrants work in the informal sector, in tourism or services, some of the sectors most heavily impacted by the pandemic. This has led to an unprecedented wave of departures from the country. Mongi Slim, director of the Red Crescent office in Medenine, said that usually, one boat arrives per month to the country’s coasts but in recent weeks, a boat arrives every two days. Slim also said that since April 2021, the Red Crescent accommodation centre in Medenine was full of migrants and refugees from Bangladesh, Morocco, Nigeria, and even Kenya. During a two-day period in early August, Tunisian authorities arrested 115 people who were about to leave in makeshift boats. From 31 July to 2 August 2020, Tunisian authorities assisted 497 migrants in distress off the coast.
According to the UNHCR, the COVID-19 situation in the country improved significantly as a consequence of the accelerated national vaccination campaign. Around 33 percent of the overall population had been vaccinated by then and most movement restrictions including night curfew were lifted. As of 13 October 2021, 315 refugees and asylum seekers had been vaccinated in Tunisia and according to UNHCR data, there were 8,854 refugees and asylum seekers in the country.
- OHCHR, “Tunisia and Libya: UN Experts Condemn Collective Expulsion and Deplorable Living Conditions of Migrants,” 10 November 2021, https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=27790&LangID=E
- A. Capron, “Tunisia: Hundreds of Migrants, Including Pregnant Women, Deported to Libyan Desert,” France 24, 5 October 2021, https://observers.france24.com/en/africa/20211007-tunisia-migrants-deported-libyan-desert
- M. Panara, “En Tunisie, le COVID-19 Fragilise Encore Davantage Les Migrants,” Infomigrants, 6 August 2021, https://www.infomigrants.net/fr/post/34152/en-tunisie-le-covid19-fragilise-encore-davantage-les-migrants
- Infomigrants, “Près de 500 Migrants Secourus au Large de la Tunisie en Deux Jours,” 3 August 2021, https://www.infomigrants.net/fr/post/34065/pres-de-500-migrants-secourus-au-large-de-la-tunisie-en-deux-jours
- UNHCR, “UNHCR Tunisia Operational Update – September 2021,” 13 October 2021, https://reliefweb.int/report/tunisia/unhcr-tunisia-operational-update-september-2021
- Screengrab from Footage Shared by Tunisian Human Rights Organisations in September 2021 Showing a Group of People, including Young Children, Being Taken by Bus to the Libyan Border (France 24 Observers Team, “Tunisia: Hundreds of Migrants, Including Pregnant Women, Deported to Libyan Desert,” 5 October 2021, https://observers.france24.com/en/africa/20211007-tunisia-migrants-deported-libyan-desert)