Tunis, Tunisia – Hundreds of Black men, women and children forcibly expelled from the port city of Sfax remain trapped in the heavily secured “no man’s land” between Libya and Tunisia.
Footage shot by Al Jazeera, the only media organisation to reach the isolated group, reveals the pitiful sight of hundreds of people languishing on the coast between the armed forces of both states.
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The refugees and migrants on the beach showed reporter Malik Traina deep wounds they said had been inflicted by Tunisia’s security services.
Others, who said they had been trapped for up to six days, reported being so thirsty they were driven to drink seawater.
Tunisian President Kais Saied has said the hundreds of refugees and migrants are being treated well in line with the country’s values.
Tensions explode in Sfax
Tensions have been growing for some time between Sfax residents and the mostly irregular Black refugees and migrants drawn to the city and the chance of a boat to Europe.
Racially motivated attacks on the vulnerable population had been reported with increasing frequency, and on Tuesday, officials announced the death of a local man, 41-year-old Nizar Amri, who was said to be involved in the attacks on the Black refugees and migrants.
Amri’s death and social media footage of his bleeding body prompted a wave of violence across the city so intense that one witness described it as “like civil war”.
In the hours and days following Amri’s killing, for which three men from Cameroon were arrested, legions of Black people flooded the railway and louage (shared taxi) stations to escape the city.
Security services forced a reported 1,200 Black refugees and migrants onto buses and deposited them – without food, water or protection against the sun – on the desert borders between Tunisia and its neighbours Algeria and Libya.
The actual number of expelled people may be far higher.
“The Tunisian authorities, who have contributed to fuelling hatred against Black migrants, have deliberately endangered hundreds by abandoning them in the desert at the border with Libya,” Salsabil Chellali, a researcher and director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Tunisia, told Al Jazeera.
“Under the pretext of ‘helping them’ after the violence they suffered in Sfax, they are proceeding to arbitrarily arrest and collectively expel them. It’s urgent to help them, it’s a matter of life and death,” she added.
Abused by both sides
There were many reports of sexual assault, rape and physical assault among the expelled people. Voicemails sent by the trapped individuals to HRW tell of brutal assaults.
“They broke the feet of two young immigrants, and they broke the mouth of a woman,” one said, “They took out … tore out all her teeth with an iron bar. They hit the woman in the mouth.”
Another said that, while limited support had come from individuals who brought some food and water from the Libyan side of the border, nothing had been received from Tunisia.
Al Jazeera has not been able to independently confirm any of these reports.
According to the account of one man interviewed by HRW, a woman and her infant died in childbirth. The rights organisation also said six of the individuals expelled are asylum seekers registered with the UNHCR.
Others interviewed by HRW told of being attacked by Libyan men, some in uniform.
The migrant charity group Alarm Phone tracked two groups of more than 100 individuals to the Algerian border, where they told of police having taken their mobile phones and money before depositing them in the desert.
According to Alarm Phone, the groups had splintered, with some telling the NGO that they had walked about 100km (62 miles) in the desert without water and were lost. Three had been left behind.
Alarm Phone was contacted by several other groups deported from #Tunisia to the deserted border region with #Algeria. The police took passports & phones, left them without water or food. They are lost in the desert and fear for their lives. They are urgently asking for help!
— Alarm Phone (@alarm_phone) July 7, 2023
Rights groups, including the legal advocacy group Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF), have slammed the move by the Tunisian state as illegal, breaching provisions mandated by both the United Nations and the African Union, launching an open letter calling upon the government to reconsider and immediately reverse course.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Zeineb Mrouki, of ASF’s Tunis office said: “These evictions are obviously illegal, violating the principle of nonrefoulement and the prohibition of collective expulsions.”
Continuing, “Migrants should not be returned to situations of destitution or inhospitable conditions, where their safety or human rights would be threatened,” she said in French, citing conditions within the militarised zone.
Conspiracy and blaming the ‘other’
Since February, anecdotal accounts of racist abuse by Black Tunisians as well as Black people present in Tunisia for various reasons have increased dramatically.
Mickey, from Guinea, described receiving racist abuse on a near-daily basis. A woman next to him, who did not give her name, said simply: “They call me ‘slave’.”
The uptick in abuse has been traced back to an extraordinary racial broadside by President Kais Saied against irregular Black migrants within Tunisia, accusing them of bringing “all the violence, crime, and unacceptable practices” that were symptoms of a criminal plan designed to “change the demographic make-up” of the country.
The tumult of violence that followed led to several African governments airlifting their citizens to safety and international rebukes for Saied. Despite furious diplomatic backpedalling, the overt racism legitimised by the president’s speech across parts of Tunisian society has proven hard to contain.
Saied’s fixation on racially charged conspiracy theories was on show again in his reaction to the events in Sfax where, he said, it was criminal networks that were deliberately drawing migrants, not the social media groups and word of mouth mentioned by those Al Jazeera spoke to.
And despite the harrowing accounts coming from the borders, Saied has insisted that the rights of asylum seekers and migrants are being respected in line with Tunisia’s values, “contrary to what colonial circles and their agents advocate”.
The president did give permission to the Tunisian Red Crescent and other humanitarian workers to enter the militarised zone and help the trapped migrants on July 9 – a week after the expulsions reportedly began.
Footage shared by HRW appeared to show Red Crescent medics providing immediate first aid and some food and water, then leaving the group in place, awaiting some kind of negotiated route out.
Tanking economy, rising hatred
Observers say that racist sentiment has risen in Tunisia as its economy deteriorated, with the link between the tanking economy and migration long acknowledged.
“They are taking our jobs, they are starting problems, starting violent actions. This is all happening because of the sub-Saharans,” an 18-year-old in Sfax told Al Jazeera.
Many of the irregular Black refugees and migrants arrive with little or nothing, subsequently finding themselves living in the country’s poor neighbourhoods, placing additional stress on the competition for resources.
Tunisia’s ingrained unemployment, one of the principal causes of its revolution in 2011, remains stubbornly high at about 15 percent.
Subsidised staple goods, such as vegetable oil, sugar and coffee, are in increasingly short supply as government funds dwindle.
Tap water, considered one of the basics of life, is currently rationed, as drought, climate change and a creaking infrastructure all conspire to produce shortages.
Across Tunisia, there is a growing fear of the future and uncertainty over the present, which seem to be feeding into the racist attacks meted out with haphazard savagery to the irregular Black migrants fleeing unspeakable hardships of their own.
Seeming to address these shortages is a significant aid package from the European Union, valued at more than 1 billion euros ($1.07bn).
While much of this is intended to support Tunisia’s wider economy, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen specified a priority tranche of 100 million euros ($107m) for keeping refugees and migrants from Europe’s shores.
Among the operations mentioned were border management, search and rescue, anti-smuggling and returns that were “rooted in respect for human rights”.
How far Tunisia is willing to go to meet those undertakings remains to be seen.