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Bankrolling Tunisian Migration Crackdown That is Only Making Asylum Seekers ‘More Determined to Reach Europe’

Tunisian authorities last week forcibly removed over 500 displaced people, leaving some stranded near the border with Algeria. This is their story.

Displaced people in makeshift camps in El Amra, Tunisia, amid crackdowns by the government to stop the country becoming a “transit destination”. Photo: Charles Gorrivan

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Piles of refuse and the residual scent of human waste are the only signs that remain of the hundreds of sub-Saharan African migrants who had until recently been crowded by the International Organisation for Migration’s (IOM) offices in Tunis. 

Early on May 3, Tunisian authorities forcibly evacuated the migrants before taking bulldozers to the makeshift encampment they had established by the IOM offices in a nearby park and adjacent alleyway, abutted by ostentatious buildings in the affluent Berges du Lac neighbourhood by Tunis Lake.  

Evacuations continued elsewhere in the capital the following day, with authorities rounding up an estimated 500 to 700 displaced people onto buses, according to Romdhane Ben Amor, spokesman for the Tunisian Forum for Social and Economic Rights (FTDES).

Social media footage shows that some of the migrants and refugees have since been left stranded near the Tunisian border with Algeria — without access to water, food or shelter. Mr Amor estimates that at least 80 were detained.  

“Among them were elderly people, children and pregnant women”, said Adelaide Massimi, project coordinator at the Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration (ASGI), who added that some migrants had also been “taken to inland areas of the country” and “abandoned far from population centres.”

The remains of the evacuated camps in the Les Berges du Lac 1 neighbourhood in Tunis. Photo: Bullah

Tunisian President Kais Saied said in a National Security Council meeting on May 6 that authorities had expelled 400 migrants on the country’s eastern border. The government had not responded to requests for further information on the expelled migrants at the time of publication.

In recent years, thousands of migrants have gathered in Tunisia while they flee government repression, poverty and conflict from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. Many hope to cross the Mediterranean to Europe and nearby Italy, which is accessible by bordering islands just 100 kilometres away.

“Tunisia will not accept to be a place of settlement for these people nor will it accept to be a transit destination,” Saied said on May 6, parroting unsubstantiated claims that malign actors had poured millions in foreign funds to resettle migrants in an ethnic replacement scheme.

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The expulsions reflect the precarious limbo thousands of irregular migrants have been forced into by Tunisian authorities. Similar evacuations have been reported near Sfax, Tunisia’s second largest city, while alleged beatings, torture and arbitrary arrests and tensions with locals have compounded the insecurity of many who already complain of sickness and a lack of food and water. 

“We are suffering”, said Bullah, a Sudanese refugee camped with thousands of other migrants near the port city of Sfax. “In the camp, everything is difficult.” 


‘I’m hoping to cross this Mediterranean to go to Europe’

Estimates suggest roughly 15,000 migrants live rough in isolated areas near El Amra and Jebeniana. Located some 30 and 50 kilometres north of the port city of Sfax, the towns have become key departure points for Europe-bound sea journeys. 

Many in the migrant camps hope to reach Italy on sea voyages to the island of Lampedusa, which sits some 150 kilometres away. The maritime crossings have proven deadly, with over 2,476 people going missing trying to reach Italy in 2023 alone. 

But to some, the wait in Tunisia has become more perilous than the sea. 

In a makeshift encampment near El Arma, bumps have begun to spread across Bullah’s face and hands. “I am not in good health,” the 28-year-old told Byline Times. “There is no money for the medicine”.

“So many people have been missing, so many kids. There are some kids here without parents”

Josephues, a Sierra Leonean refugee

Reports of kidnappings, torture and trafficking at camps have made matters worse. In March, 27 international and national NGOs called out the practices, including the legal aid group Lawyers without Borders, which blamed them on the government’s approach to migration. 

“So many people have been missing, so many kids”, said Josephues, 28, a Sierra Leonean refugee who lives in the camps near El Amra with his wife and eight-year-old son. “There are some kids here without parents”.

Photos of inside the Amra camp, taken by Bullah from Darfur, Sudan

Locals have begun to amplify calls for authorities to remove migrants, with a rally as recently as May 4 in El Amra calling for their “quick” deportation. 

Anti-migrant rhetoric has often been tinged by racism, especially since February 2023, when Saied spoke of a far-right myth about a “a criminal plan to change the demographic structure” of the country.

“Tunisian authorities have implemented an overtly xenophobic policy, echoing a discourse widespread among extreme right-wing supremacists that invokes the idea of ethnic replacement”, said ASGI’s Massimi.

“They come at your place, catch you, stab you, beat you, rape your women”

Josephus

Police repression has increased in tandem, with authorities employing tear gas and burning tents to evacuate the camps while also monitoring them with drones.

Josephus said he fled from Tunis last year after he helped lead protests for migrant rights which led to him becoming a “target” as attacks on the migrant community escalated.

“They come at your place, catch you, stab you, beat you, rape your women”, he said of Tunisian’s who had begun to attack the migrant community. Josephus was arrested before he fled to Zarzis, where migrants gather close to the Libyan border, and then Sfax.

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Tensions have only risen in the areas around the port city since. Locals and police often tell migrants to return to the capital or their places of origin, Josephus said. But there is nowhere for them to go. Josephus said locals stand watch to racially profile Sub-Saharan Africans and keep them from taking buses and trains.

“There is no hope here in Tunisia,” Josephus said. “I’m hoping I’m able to cross this Mediterranean to go to Europe.”


‘We may be imprisoned at any moment’

Since Saied’s February 2023 speech, government repression has become growingly targeted toward advocates for the migrant community, who he claims are conspirators in a plot to trigger ethnic replacement.

In his remarks on May 6, Saied called groups that defend Sub-Saharan migrant communities “traitors” backed by foreign funding. Hours later, local media reported that the government had detained the head of a prominent nongovernmental group and advocate for migrant rights.

“Tunisian authorities have implemented an overtly xenophobic policy, echoing a discourse widespread among extreme right-wing supremacists that invokes the idea of ethnic replacement”

Adelaide Massimi, project coordinator at ASGI

The president has also upped his efforts to silence journalists and political opponents while he pushes impending legislation that stands to imperil NGOs by taking control of civil society organisations.

On May 4, FTDES’s Ben Amor — one of the loudest critics of Saied’s migration policies — told the Byline Times in the organisation’s central Tunis offices, that he had already prepared for his arrest. 

Ben Amor from the Tunisian Forum for Social and Economic Rights said he was already preparing for his arrest. Photo: Charles Gorrivan

“The campaign of hatred and racism did not only include migrants, but also all the organisations and associations that support them”, Mr Amor said. “We believe that the next stage will include us, as we may be imprisoned at any moment.”

With an election set for this year, Mr Amor fears that the president is poised to stray further from ideas like human rights and freedom, which sparked the Arab Spring in Tunisia over a decade ago. 

“We have concerns that anti-immigrant rhetoric will escalate and become an electoral card for the candidates”, Ben Amor said. “The next phase will be difficult in Tunisia”.


Crackdowns backed by the EU 

While Saied’s government takes a growingly repressive stance against the displaced community, ASGI’s Massimi said it is only with the EU member states’ “blessing”. 

The EU plans to provide up to €164.5 million to the same Tunisian security forces that Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch accuse of human rights abuses. The bloc has struck similar deals with neighbouring countries, including Mauritania, Egypt, and Libya.

Italy, meanwhile, finalised a series of agreements in April that could amount to over €200 million in loans, credit and cash to Tunisia. The country’s right-wing Prime Minister, Georgia Meloni, visited Tunis last month to bolster alignment between the countries.

“This cooperation indeed has continued despite the raids, illegal detentions and deportations at the borders with Algeria and Libya of foreign nationals, mainly black Africans, who are in Tunisia without any consideration for their legal status,” Massimi said.

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In an interview with euronews last week, Nicholas Schmitt, lead candidate for the socialists in the EU’s upcoming June election, expressed “reluctance” over the bloc’s plans to send “huge amounts of money” to governments in countries like Tunisia.

“We know the authorities there are really treating refugees very badly”, Schmitt said. 

In El Amra, Josephus said the horror situation in Tunisia has made the passage to Europe his best hope — to find work, offer his son an education, and find a better life.  

“I can’t go back to Sierra Leone for now”, he said. “I won’t be able to stay here in this situation.”

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