Sfax, Tunisia – Twenty-four-year-old Hassan Mahjoub sits on the dirt, the sun beating down on his face. Light brown soil stretches away, its trajectory only interrupted by the occasional tree, patches of scrub grass and bodies sleeping on salvaged mattresses.
There is no shade.
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His journey to Sfax took him from Sudan overland through Chad and Libya, before crossing into Tunisia through the border post of Ras Jedir, close to 3,000km (1,864 miles).
“I left [Sudan] a long time ago. Not just because of this war, but the war that’s been fought in Darfur for a long time,” he says.
He doesn’t know if his parents are even alive.
“Most of the people here,” he says, gesturing around the park, “have lost families to the killing.”
However, while the fate of his parents remains uncertain, he has a reason to keep going.
“I have three brothers and two sisters. They’re OK,” he says.
Mahjoub relaxes, pitching his weight onto one elbow, as he sprawls on the loose soil, “Even here, I think of them. But my problem is this sea,” he says, meaning the Mediterranean Sea. “If I can cross it, I can help them.”
Few here arrived with any illusions about Tunisia.
Sfax, the port city along the country’s long Mediterranean coast, was rarely considered a destination in itself. However, its proximity to Europe and its thriving network of people smugglers, with their crudely constructed steel boats, continue to draw the frightened and the desperate from across the continent.
‘Tortured or sexually abused’
In Sudan, the war between the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and the Sudanese army has devastated much of the country. In Khartoum, the capital, healthcare provision and government services have been reduced to tatters.
As of July 5, the death toll in the capital alone was officially estimated at 234. Volunteers and aid agencies say it is more than double that.
For both the RSF and the government forces, rape has become a weapon of war, as countless civilians, their numbers reaching into the millions, find themselves forcibly displaced and with no option but to seek shelter in the camps of the Central African Republic, Chad, Ethiopia and South Sudan.
As aid agencies struggle to cope, many of the displaced families believe that their best chance of survival lies in their young men leaving and finding security and regular work in Europe.
However, in their way stand the frontiers of Chad, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia and the combined financial heft of the European Union.
Despite there being a power struggle between two rival governments in conflict-ridden Libya, the EU and Italy continue to help fund the Libyan militias that guard the coast and prey upon the weak and the impoverished along the country’s internal migration routes.
In February of this year, Human Rights Watch accused the EU of complicity in the abuses meted out to those fleeing conflict and poverty, including documented instances of torture and rape.
“You have various entities in Libya, all trying to control different pieces of territory,” Jalel Harchaoui of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) said, “For migrants to navigate across the country, they have to deal with them individually, or risk spending nine months being tortured or sexually abused.
“Every nationality, from a Syrian who might carry hundreds of dollars, to the Eritrean with nothing, each has their own market value to the traffickers,” he said.
Algeria, still firmly under the control of a central government, offers only negligibly better treatment.
“Migrants can live within Algeria for limited periods of time, [which gives] the impression of indulgence, but it really isn’t,” Harchaoui said. “Once in a while, numbers of around 300 to 400 are driven into the desert and left to walk to [neighbouring countries] Niger and Mali.”
In Tunisia – where there has been widespread reporting of a series of racist pogroms, launched after President Kais Saied accused sub-Saharan migrants in the country of seeking to change its demographic makeup and bringing with them “all the violence, crime, and unacceptable practices that entails” – resentments linger.
In early July, following the death of a local man, said to have been involved in the attacks on migrants, the violence exploded into scenes one witness described as “like a civil war”.
Nevertheless, no matter how hostile the environment in Tunisia, or even in Europe, it pales compared to what many have left behind.
“I have many friends who have died in Sudan and here,” 19-year-old Abkar Yaguop says. “The militias came and killed my friends, my uncle, my brother,” he says of the carnage in Sudan.
Asked what would stop him from reaching Europe, he barely pauses, “Money. We don’t have money. That’s all that will stop us.”
“Europe has complete security,” Yaguop continues, “It is dangerous, but what can you do? You make a decision and you choose.”
‘We have no choice’
There is no way of describing living conditions in the parks of Sfax as anything other than desperate.
Denied any shelter or cover, the Sudanese refugees, like the others scattered across the car parks and along the grass verges, are subject to the nightly raids of gangs of young Tunisian men, who prey upon the sleeping for their phones, or whatever money they may have earned through the occasional day labour that many compete for.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) offers some support, but the agency struggles to keep up with a fast-moving situation. With refugees arriving daily, many of the new arrivals are unaware of their rights under international law.
“In Tunisia, UNHCR registers refugees and asylum seekers as a first step to ensure their protection, and works with partners to ensure refugee access to essential services such as education, legal assistance, and medical services,” Matthew Saltmarsh, a spokesperson for the agency, said from its headquarters in Switzerland.
“In Sfax Park only and during July, UNHCR’s team managed to reach and register some 334 Sudanese nationals, all of whom were sheltering in public areas and were issued registration certificates,” he said.
However, Rabih, a young student who arrived two weeks ago, has priorities beyond the bureaucratic process of confirming his legal status in Tunisia.
“I’m going to cross the Mediterranean,” he says, “It will be hard in Europe, I know that. It’s not like your dreams will be there waiting for you. You will have to work,” he says.
He pauses, stepping back from the young man whose hair he has been cutting.
He gestures to the small crowd who have gathered around to watch the interview, “Everyone here is trying to cross the sea, [illegally] because there is no legal way of doing so,” he says.
“We know the [metal] boats are dangerous, but we have no choice. Look at their faces,” he says of the watchers, “They are suffering from hunger, war, this place.”
His voice grows more emphatic, “The only way for us is the sea, so you have two options. The first is to cross the sea, the other is to wait here and die.”