Libyan authorities rescue refugees in desert near Tunisia

Dozens of refugees left without water or food in the desert after being expelled from Tunisia following racial tensions.

The port of Sfax is a departure point for many refugees from impoverished and violence-torn countries seeking a better life in Europe [File: Mahmud Turika/AFP]

Libyan border guards have rescued dozens of refugees and migrants who have been left in the desert by Tunisian authorities without water or food, and their numbers are “rising”, a Libyan officer says.

“The number of migrants keep rising every day,” Mohamad Abou Snenah, a member of a border patrol unit, said on Sunday, telling the Agence France-Presse (AFP) news agency it had rescued “50 to 70 migrants”.

“We offer them medical attention, first aid, considering the journey they have made through the desert.”

Al Jazeera’s Malik Traina reported on Monday that the number of refugees and migrants rescued by the Libyan forces with the help of the United Nations had risen to 191.

Hundreds of Black sub-Saharan Africans have been forcibly taken to the desert and hostile areas on the borders with Libya and Algeria after racial unrest in early July in Sfax, Tunisia’s second-largest city.

Traina, reporting from Misrata, Libya, said the refugees and migrants were part of a larger group expelled from Sfax following riots.

The group was in an uninhabited area close to al-Assah, a town near the Tunisia-Libya border, nearly 150km (93 miles) west of Tripoli.

“They transferred these people into the desert … without water, without food and tried to push them into Libyan territory using tear gas,” Traina said.

Many were left in the “scorching desert” for days, he said. Since these deportations began, about 1,200 people have been expelled.

“When we went and visited the site, … we found about 700 to 800 migrants in that location,” Traina said. “It appears that there could be several groups along the dessert in the Tunisia-Libya border, and they are pleading for help, for water and food and shelter.”

Exhausted and dehydrated

An AFP team at the border reported seeing refugees who were visibly exhausted and dehydrated, sitting or lying on the sand and using shrubs to try to shield themselves from the scorching summer heat, which topped 40C (104F).

A team from the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) provided them with food, clothes and temporary accommodation as well as first aid for those injured, according to a statement by Libya’s Ministry of Interior.

In a video posted by the ministry, two men from Nigeria said they were beaten up by Tunisian soldiers and taken along with others to a desert area before being told to cross into Libya.

Another man said Tunisian soldiers took their passports and burned them before taking 35 people in one vehicle to the border area with Libya.

He said they spent two days in the desert before Libyan border guards found them.

At a reception centre, groups of women and children, including toddlers, lay on mattresses and ate yoghurt.

Ivorian Abou Kouni, who arrived in Tunisia seven years ago, said he was apprehended on the street last week and put on a truck along with his wife.

He said he was hit in the torso and back and policemen had threatened to kill him.

Tunisian police, according to Abou Kouni, “said they are going to throw us in Libya” and told him, “We don’t need you in Tunisia.”


Ibrahim, a Congolese man who used to live in the Tunisian city of Zarzis, said he was stopped on the street on his way back from work.

“They dropped us in the desert,” he said. “We’ve been in the desert for many days. We saw a shepherd who gave us bread and water.”

Hundreds of refugees and migrants fled or were forced out of Tunisia’s Sfax after racial tensions flared following the July 3 killing of a Tunisian man in an altercation between locals and Black sub-Saharan Africans.

The port of Sfax is a departure point for many refugees from impoverished and violence-torn countries who seek a better life in Europe by making a perilous Mediterranean crossing, often in makeshift boats.

In Libya, human traffickers have long profited from the chaos since the 2011 overthrow of strongman Muammar Gaddafi, and the country has faced accusations over abuse of refugees.

Tunisian rights groups said on Friday that 100 to 150 people, including women and children, were still stuck on the border with Libya.

The Tunisian Red Crescent said it has provided shelter to more than 600 people who had been taken since July 3 to the militarised zone of Ras Jedir, the main border crossing with Libya, which is north of al-Assah on the Mediterranean coast.

In western Tunisia near the Algerian border, about 165 refugees abandoned near the border with Algeria had been picked up, the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights said on Friday without specifying by whom or where they were taken.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies