Despite EU-Tunisia deal, Black refugees pushed out ‘at gunpoint’

The EU has promised Tunisia $280m in aid. But on the country’s frontiers, refugees and migrants are still stranded.

Migrants sit on the ground in Sfax as racial tensions in the Tunisian coastal city flared into violence
Migrants and refugees sit on the ground in Sfax as racial tensions in the Tunisian coastal city flared into violence [File: Imed Haddad/AFP]

Tunis, Tunisia – Tunisia’s mass expulsion of Black refugees and migrants to its borders with Libya and Algeria is continuing despite the award of more than 250 million euros ($280m) in aid from the European Union to support its failing economy and better manage its borders.

At least three videos provided by NGOs and Libyan border agencies have appeared since Sunday, appearing to show Tunisian security services expelling Black men, women and children from the territory to the border with Libya, where they were forced at gunpoint to walk into the desert without food and water.

The EU has given 100 million euros ($112m) to improve Tunisia’s border security, while 150 million euros ($168m) was earmarked for the North African country’s stuttering economy as part of an agreement with the bloc.

But the benefits to the EU, beyond Tunisia ramping up its border security and surveillance, were not immediately clear.

Signing a memorandum of understanding on Sunday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who was accompanied by Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Dutch PM Mark Rutte, welcomed the agreement as an opportunity to “invest in shared prosperity”.

Echoing von der Leyen’s comments, Meloni spoke warmly of “an important new step in dealing with the migration crisis in an integrated way”, before inviting Tunisia’s President Kais Saied to a migration summit in Rome next Sunday.

However, throughout the negotiations over the EU aid package, the mass expulsions – deemed illegal in a statement issued earlier on Tuesday by United Nations experts – have continued, with a number of videos emerging appearing to show hundreds of refugees and migrants either being rescued by Libyan border security or wandering freely in the desert.

Videos provided by NGOs and Libyan security agencies show dozens wandering in the desert, with neither food nor water.

Hundreds continue to be expelled from across Tunisia after violence took hold in the port city of Sfax, a destination point for many Black sub-Saharan Africans fleeing war and poverty.

The unrest began after a February speech by Saied, warning of demographic change in Tunisia that was denounced as “racist”.

It has dogged the lives of many, culminating in street battles between local residents, the police and Black sub-Saharan Africans after the death of a local man in Sfax in early July.

Since then, Tunisia’s security services have been active in seizing Black men, women and children who lack proper documents from migration hotspots and bussing them to the remote reaches of the border.


In a video shared by the NGO Alarm Phone, a man spoke of “losing strength” and claimed to have been beaten by Tunisian security forces. The video shows several others stranded, including a pregnant woman who the man said, like others, had been without food, water or medication for seven days.

Another group, the NGO said, was abandoned near Ras Ajdir, on the Tunisian border with Libya, where three of them had been bitten by scorpions. None was reported to have received medical attention.

Across the border, Libyan security agencies have been quick to publicise efforts to help Black refugees and migrants who have been abandoned by Tunisia.

However, within Libya itself, the picture is not so straightforward. A UN investigation last year showed refugees and migrants detained in Libya had been murdered, tortured and raped by their captors.

Many of those currently in Tunisia told Al Jazeera of routine attacks by Libyan militias, with rape a common method of control.

Migrants sit during a gathering in Sfax, Tunisia's eastern coast, Friday, July 7, 2023.
Migrants and refugees during a gathering in Sfax as tensions spiked dangerously in a Tunisian port city [File: AP Photo]

European benefits?

For many European countries, the priority is ultimately to find a way to heavily clamp down on illegal migration into the continent.

But some of the gains the European Commission hopes to make from the deal signed with Tunisia on Sunday have also come into question.

British newspaper The Guardian reported that Tunisia has held firm to its position that it will not welcome migrants and refugees returned from Europe, unless they are originally from Tunisia, despite hopes from some European leaders that they would be able to.

Therefore, it is not clear how the migration aspect of the deal marks any significant improvement upon the longstanding arrangement between Italy and Tunisia that allows for Tunisian returnees from Italy to be fast-tracked in exchange for Italy partly funding the Tunisian coastguard and border police.

Reaction to the aid deal from aid agencies and from within the European Parliament has been quick to come. French Member of the European Parliament Mounir Satouri is one of a group of MEPs from across the political spectrum who have opposed the strengthening of ties with Tunisia.

“It is EU money on a silver platter for a president [Saied] who has shifted Tunisia’s nascent democracy to an autocracy,” Satouri told Al Jazeera. “For what purpose? To externalise migration management to him [Saied], even though Tunisian authorities are not respecting migrants’ rights. The signalling could not be worse.”

“Tunisia is going through an economic crisis and we need to help Tunisians in this moment. But budget support to an autocrat is not the right way,” Satouri continued. “Today, the Commission and Council are going through with what they can award without the consent of the European Parliament.”

Sub-Saharan migrants attend a protest against the dire conditions of migrants in Tunisia's coastal central city of Sfax on July 7, 2023, after the death of a young Tunisian stabbed in an altercation between locals and migrants. - Hundreds of African migrants were stranded in dire conditions in a desert area of southern Tunisia on July 6 after being expelled from the port city of Sfax, witnesses told AFP. Racial tensions flared this week into violence targeting migrants from sub-Saharan African countries, with dozens fleeing the city or being forcibly evicted. (Photo by HOUSSEM ZOUARI / AFP)
Sub-Saharan migrants and refugees attend a protest against the dire conditions of migrants in Tunisia’s coastal central city of Sfax [File: Houssem Zouari/AFP]

Amnesty has also been highly critical of the aid package in light of the ongoing abuses committed in Tunisia.

Accusing the EU of complicity in the attacks against Black refugees and migrants in the country, Olivia Sundberg Diez, the NGO’s EU advocate on migration and asylum, told Al Jazeera that no lessons had been learned from past agreements with Libya and Turkey.

“The signing of this agreement without human rights conditions and safeguards, without democratic scrutiny or involvement of civil society, at the same time as evidence of abuses in Tunisia was mounting, and with no public condemnation of these abuses during leaders’ visit to Tunisia, shows an appalling disregard for human rights,” Sundberg Diez said.

Contacted by Al Jazeera, a spokesperson for the European Commission said concern for human rights was paramount.

“Our clear position is that migration management needs to respect human rights and international law. This is reflected in the MoU signed with Tunisia,” the spokesperson said. “Under the MoU, we agreed that we will cooperate on border management, anti-smuggling, return and on addressing root causes, in full respect of the international law, and the dignity and rights of migrants.”

“The EU is already supporting the International Organization for Migration, UNHCR and international NGOs to cater for the needs of stranded migrants in Tunisia and ensure dignified returns for those who want to go back home,” the spokesperson added. “We are addressing human rights issues … with Tunisia.”

The aid package for Tunisia will now go to the EU member states for approval, who may exact some concessions from both parties before signing off on the deal.

However, an EU source told the magazine Politico that the deal with Tunisia marked a blueprint for future relations between the bloc and North Africa, with Egypt and Morocco expected to follow.

Source: Al Jazeera