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Tunisia: Detention and “Desert Dumping” of Sub-Saharan Refugees 

Migrants abandoned in remote desert areas. (Source: Lighthouse Reports,
Migrants abandoned in remote desert areas. (Source: Lighthouse Reports,

With financial support from the European Union, Tunisia is systematically undertaking anti-migrant and racially motivated operations, including “desert dumps” and unlawful arbitrary expulsions of migrants and refugees to remote areas near Libya and Algeria, according to recent reports. 

Violence Against Migrants and Arrests of Human Rights Defenders

The growing number of reports revealing abuses suffered by migrants and refugees in Tunisia are spurring widespread indignation. A spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights recently expressed serious concerns over the increased targeting of migrants in Tunisia, particularly those coming from sub-Saharan Africa. The refugee agency denounced “a rise in the use of dehumanising and racist rhetoric against Black migrants and Black Tunisians” and “incidents of arbitrary arrest and detention of human rights defenders, lawyers and journalists critical of the Government, as well as its migration policies.”

In May 2024, Amnesty International reported on the persecution of NGOs in Tunisia that support refugees and migrants: “Tunisia’s authorities have stepped up their malicious crackdown against civil society organizations working on migrants and refugee rights using misleading claims about their work and harassing and prosecuting NGO workers, lawyers and journalists. A smear campaign online and in the media, supported by the Tunisian President himself, has put refugees and migrants in the country at risk. It also undermines the work of civil society groups and sends a chilling message to all critical voices.” The organisation also reported that Tunisian authorities carried out forced evictions and unlawful deportations of migrants and refugees, while also arresting and imprisoning landlords renting apartments to migrants without a regular permit.

Several observers have decried the EU’s support for Tunisia’s migration practices, accusing Brussels of being implicated in human rights violations against sub-Saharan migrants. Last year, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen proposed a 900 EUR million economic aid package to Tunisia, as well as an additional 105 EUR million for border management and anti-smuggling activities. Several European countries, including Germany and Italy, have offered migration partnership plans to Tunisia in an effort to curb migration movement towards Europe. Reportedly, EU funding in Tunisia is fuelling illegal collective expulsions of migrants, also known as “desert dumps.”

Unlawful Pushbacks to Libya and Algeria

Thanks to a year-long investigation, Lighthouse Reports–cooperating with the Washington Post, Enass, Der Spiegel, El Pais, IrpiMedia, ARD, Inkyfada and Le Monde–recently revealed that “Europe supports, finances and is directly involved in clandestine operations in North African countries to dump tens of thousands of Black people in the desert or remote areas each year to prevent them from coming to the EU.” 

According to these investigative reports, during these operations, Black migrants are abandoned without help, water and food, while also being exposed to the risk of kidnapping, extortion, forced labour, torture, sexual violence and sometimes even death. Often, they get left in border zones in Libya or Algeria, or sold by the authorities to human traffickers and criminal gangs who torture them in exchange for a ransom. Other times they are handed over to Libyan security forces and then incarcerated in detention centres.

“Collective expulsions from Tunisia to Libya and the associated arbitrary detention of migrants are fuelling extortion rackets and cycles of abuse, which are already widespread human rights issues in Libya,” said a confidential UN briefing seen by Reuters. According to the briefing, so far this year about 2,000 migrants detained by Tunisia have been handed to Libyan authorities, and transferred to detention centres over the border, such as al-Assa or Nalout, where allegedly detainees are recurrently exposed to torture and killings.

According to Al Jazeera, hundreds of refugees and migrants, including children, have disappeared in Tunis since May to be abandoned in the desert near Algeria. Observers also report that thousands of sub-Saharan Africans, including registered refugees, who sheltered outside the coastal town of Sfax–some 280 km south of Tunis–were attacked by both Tunisian security services and hostile residents.

Video footage shared by Refugees in Libya appears to show hundreds of migrants and refugees, reportedly apprehended in Sfax and Tunis, being exchanged between Tunisia and Libya. “Tunisia’s authorities are carrying out arbitrary collective unlawful deportations without due process or individual protection assessments in flagrant violation of international law. They must immediately halt these expulsions and ensure the rights of all refugees and migrants, including children, are protected at all times,” said Amnesty International.

Africa Arbitrary detention Deportation European Union Pushbacks Racism and Discrimination Tunisia