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Trapped Between Borders: Tunisia’s Alarming Treatment of Sub-Saharan Migrants 

Screenshot of a video shared on Twitter, showing men, women, and children stranded in a coastal area between Tunisia and Libya (source: Twitter (@NejmaBrahim)

Tunisia has come under renewed criticism from rights groups after authorities rounded up sub-Saharan migrants and asylum seekers and forcefully relocated them to a buffer zone between the Tunisian and Libyan border. Videos shared online show men, women, and children–some with injuries–stranded close to the sea, reportedly without any food or water. 

Surging Discrimination 

According to Human Rights Watch, since 2 July hundreds of black African asylum seekers and migrants have been arrested in raids in or near Sfax and transported to the buffer zone between the two countries. Here, they have essentially been trapped–unable to enter Libya or return to Tunisia. Those interviewed by the rights group claimed that their phones had been destroyed by authorities, and that some had been beaten by security forces. Others allege that several have died in the border area, and that Libyans had raped several women. 

For the past few months, tensions have been rising in Sfax–one of the main departure points for those seeking to attempt the dangerous sea journey to Europe. In May, a Beninese migrant was stabbed to death and five migrants were injured in the city when the house in which they lived was attacked by local Tunisians. In June, hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the local prefecture to call for the departure of non-nationals from the city. 

Demonstrations such as this, as well as racist attacks, have multiplied in Tunisia since February, when President Kais Saied publicly urged security forces to take urgent action against sub-Saharan migrants in the country. Claiming that these migrants have been trying to “change the demographic makeup” of Tunisia, Saied alleged that they have turned the country into “just another African country that doesn’t belong to the Arab and Islamic nations any more.” Countless NGOs have denounced recent rhetoric in the country–including the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES) which, along with 27 other NGOs, has deplored the country’s “climate of impunity” and “normalization of violence.” 

Accompanying this rhetoric have been widespread arrests of African migrants and asylum seekers,, many of whom have been placed in the El Ouardia Detention Centre. Officially categorised as a “reception and reorientation centre,” observers describe it as a detention facility where countless foreigners are arbitrarily detained. Although NGOs and lawyers are rarely, if ever, able to access the centre, several media outlets have reported on conditions based on communications with detainees. Most recently, in March France24 highlighted the centre’s “squalid” conditions and abysmal treatment, including beatings. (For more information about Tunisia’s immigration detention practices, see our 2020 report.) 

EU “Migration Management” 

Despite repeated criticisms levelled at the government regarding its rhetoric and treatment of its black population, the EU continues to strike deals with Tunisia in an effort to block migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers attempting to reach Europe. In June for example, the European Commission announced an investment deal worth EUR 100 million–part of a larger EUR 1 billion investment plan–to support border management, search and rescue operations, anti-smuggling activities, and migrant returns.  However, Tunisia has made clear that it does not wish to become a “reception centre” for returns of sub-Saharan migrants from Europe and that it will only take back Tunisians who have irregularly entered the EU.

This is not the first time that the country has received European financing for the purposes of “migration management.” For decades, the EU and individual European states have partnered with the country in an effort to stem migration flows. During the past decade, pressure has steadily increased, and millions of Euros have been spent on training, equipping, and advising Tunisia’s security forces–including funding radar systems, coast guard boats, and centres for training security forces in “border management.” 

Investment such as this has bolstered the country’s coastguard, which has stepped up its interceptions of migrant boats in recent years. According to FTDES, between January and the end of June this year, some 32,792 people were intercepted. Following interception, migrants and asylum seekers are returned to Tunisia. But as the country has no formal migration policy or asylum law, they have no means of seeking protection or obtaining legal status. Instead, they face detention and violent refoulement.

Arbitrary detention European Union Externalisation Forced Deportation League of Arab States MENA Political Rhetoric Racism and Discrimination Tunisia