Tunisia’s president has rejected criticism of his government’s treatment of Black African refugees after hundreds were rounded up by authorities and left on the border with Libya.
President Kais Saied said on Sunday the refugees were receiving humane treatment stemming from what he called “our values”.
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Refugees, however, say they have been left to tackle the desert heat with little food or water.
Tunisia, which is a major migration route to Europe, has come under criticism from rights groups after authorities rounded up refugees and asylum seekers and expelled them to a remote buffer zone at Tunisia’s border with Libya.
“These migrants are receiving humane treatment emanating from our values and traits, contrary to what colonial circles and their agents are circulating,” the Tunisian presidency said in a statement.
It accused unnamed foreign powers of seeking a “new type of settlement” for refugees and spreading lies about Tunisia.
‘Give them help’
The remarks came after a meeting on Saturday between Saied and Prime Minister Najla Bouden that the president’s office said addressed “irregular migration”.
The statement cited Saied as saying Tunisian security forces had protected the foreigners who wanted to settle in the country. “Tunisia is not a furnished apartment for sale or rent,” he was quoted as saying.
Libya, meanwhile, told Tunisia it wants the refugees moved from the border area.
“We informed the Tunisian authorities these people are supposed to be removed from the border points because they have infiltrated illegally,” said Major-General Abd al-Salam al-Amrani, director of security at the Ras Ajdir border crossing.
“We hope the Tunisian authorities can protect them and contact the Red Crescent and other humanitarian organisations to give them help,” he told Al Jazeera.
Earlier this week, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Tunisian security forces had collectively expelled several hundred African refugees and asylum seekers.
The group urged Tunisia to halt forced removals of sub-Saharan Africans and urgently enable access to humanitarian services for those sent to the dangerous border area.
“Not only is it unconscionable to abuse people and abandon them in the desert, but collective expulsions violate international law,” said Lauren Seibert, refugee and migrant rights researcher at HRW.
‘Hordes of migrants’
Bugata Gambe, a 21-year-old refugee from the Gambia, told Al Jazeera he was expelled to the desolate area in Libya for the past six days.
He said Tunisian authorities have not provided him or others with food or water. “It’s really difficult here. We are really suffering. We want to get out of here,” said Gambe.
Earlier this month, a Tunisian man was stabbed to death in clashes between refugees and residents of the Tunisian coastal city of Sfax, a key launchpad for asylum seekers heading to Italy.
Meanwhile on Sunday, at least 10 Tunisians were reported missing and one dead after their boat sank off Tunisia as they tried to cross the Mediterranean to Italy.
Authorities said the coast guard rescued 11 people from the boat, which set off from the coastal town of Zarzis, said Faouzi Masmoudi, a judge in Sfax.
Earlier this year, Saied announced a tougher crackdown on refugees in Tunisia. Since then, attacks on foreigners in the country have increased.
Tunisia has seen a rise in racially motivated violence after a speech by Saied last February in which he spoke of the “hordes of irregular migrants from sub-Saharan Africa” who come bringing “violence, crime, and unacceptable practices”.