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Stranded in Tunisia: African migrants' urgent plea for help

July 11, 2023

Tunisia's crackdown against Sub-Saharans has reached a new brutal stage. Hundreds of migrants were saved at the last minute near Libya, while others remain stuck in the desert near the border with Algeria.

Fransiska from Guinea came to Tunisia on a popular square in Sfax
Many migrants, like Francisca from Guinea, hope to use Tunisia as a springboard to cross the Mediterranean Sea into Italy. Image: Wahid Dahech

The remote militarized zone between Tunisia and Libya is as inhospitable as a region can be. There is nothing but sand and sea water, it is generally barred for visitors, humanitarian organizations or any form of trespassing. This is where Tunisian authorities had dropped off around 800 Sub-Saharan migrants for days until they were picked up again by Tunisian authorities on Monday night.

According to several news agencies, people were left to their own device, and the news outlet Al Jazeera reported that around a dozen people died, while others had started to drink sea water out of desperation.

Migrants usually cross into Tunisia from other African countries with a tourist visa or no papers at all in the hopes of making it to Europe. Tunisian authorities pick them up off the street — and sometimes drop them off in the desert.

"The groups of Black refugees and migrants included children, women, pregnant women and they'd been left stranded in the Sahara with no shade, no food, no water," Monica Marks, Tunisia researcher and assistant professor of Arab Crossroads Studies at the New York University Abu Dhabi, told DW from the capital Tunis.

"The situation was absolutely horrifying, Tunisia's President Kais Saied was very much willing to allow Black refugees and migrants to die in Tunisia."

Following the current outcry by human rights organizations, President Saied said in a statement on Sunday that migrants in his country are "receiving humane treatment emanating from our values and traits, contrary to what colonial circles and their agents are circulating."

But Lauren Seibert, a researcher at the NGO Human Rights Watch who focuses on refugees and migrant rights, told DW on Tuesday that "another group of several hundreds of Sub-Saharan migrants was bussed to the border with Algeria where they still remain without any aid."

The port city of Sfax in the south of the country is the second-largest city in Tunisia, and a well-known hub for Sub-Saharan migrants who want to cross the Mediterranean Sea into Europe as the nearest Italian islands are only about 130 kilometers (around 80 miles) away.

However, as the costly and dangerous journey is mostly organized via migrant smugglers, many migrants work for a while, some even years, in construction or private households in Tunisia to save up for the journey. Others just wait for the opportunity to cross, and very few decide over time to stay. In the past years, the Tunisian authorities have been quite reluctant to release visas or resident permits.

People lift placards as they shout slogans during a demonstration against the presence of illegal sub-Saharan migrants, in Sfax on June 25, 2023
While some Tunisians try to help Black migrants, many more are protesting against the migrants in Sfax and other parts of the country. Image: Houssem Zouari/AFP/Getty Images

Growing anti-migrant sentiments in Tunisia

The latest crackdown against Sub-Saharan migrants by Tunisian authorities was sparked by the death of a 41-year-old Tunisian man earlier this month. He was stabbed to death in a fight between Tunisians and migrants, and the video of his funeral went viral on social media.

It is, however, not the first time that Sub-Saharan migrants in Tunisia are exposed to violent attacks by the local population and the government.

In February 2023 increasingly authoritarian President Saied had already caused a wave of violence against migrants after he had said that migrants entering the country had the goal of altering the demographic structure of Tunisia, alleging that this threatened to transform Tunisia into an "African" instead of an "Arab-Muslim" country.

Later, in light of an international outcry, he had backpaddled.

A view of tyres burning, following the death of a Tunisian man, who was killed during clashes with migrants, in Sfax, Tunisia July 4,
The death of a Tunisian man has sparked the latest crackdown against Sub-Saharan migrants. Image: REUTERS

New toolkit for migration management

"What seems to have happened is that the government of Tunisia reacted improvisationally to the unrest in Sfax, rather than the deportations being strategically planned," Matt Herbert, senior expert on North Africa at the Swiss think tank Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, told DW.

However, he said it is likely that migrant-citizen unrest and deportations will happen again. He sees the European Union as heightening that risk, as they pressure North African countries to halt irregular migration to Europe.

"If the interest is in further heightening migrant clampdowns in North Africa and furthering enforcement, the EU and member states need to plan ahead for these tensions to emerge, and engage with host governments on how to respond and what support the EU and member states can provide," Herbert said.

Migrants hold out in open-air square for days

Meanwhile, around 300 Sub-Saharan migrants continue to stay on Sfax' central Bab al-Jabali square which is surrounded by security and military.

The migrant Lamin Mané from Gambia in Sfax, Tunisia
Lamin Mane from Gambia has been on the main square in Sfax for daysImage: Wahid Dahech

Lamine Mane, a young man from Gambia, is extremely worried after four days out on the street. He told DW that he came to Tunisia some months ago after walking across Senegal, Mali and Algeria.

 "Trust me, all people [here on the square] want to go to Italy because it has freedom and job opportunities," Lamine told DW.

"I came from Guinea four days ago and we have been sleeping here [at the square] in the open air," Francisca, 26, who did not want to share her last name, told DW in Sfax. "My only goal is to survive this, if Tunisia gives us the freedom to cross into Italy, no one will stay.

Ahmad Adam immigrant from Mali is in the port city of Sfax
Ahmad Adam, an immigrant from Mali, had to leave his flat amid the crackdown against Sub-Saharan migrants in Sfax.Image: Wahid Dahech

Next to her is Ahmed Adam from Mali who has been working for six years in Sfax to save up for the journey to Europe.

"I have never had any problems before," Adam told DW. But as a consequence of the clash between migrants and the Tunisian man who died, his landlord told him to leave his flat. "This is happening for the first time, and now I am hungry and homeless. We need help!" he told DW.

And Martina from Cameroon, who did not want to share her last name, told DW that "Tunisians don't want us here because we're Black, but we didn't choose our color and Tunisia is an African country as well."

Fear of further escalation

Recently, there were also some signs of support in the form of a protest in Sfax and local residents trying to bring food and water to the migrants on the square ― even though this is not an easy task.

Researcher Monica Marks told DW that she spoke to Tunisians all around the country who have tried to deliver food and water to Black people who are living in the streets. "But they've been punished by the police, they are not allowed to give car rides to Black refugees and migrants and public transportation is barred from allowing them to ride."

Similarly, Ramadan Ben Omar, a leading member of the human rights organization Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, doesn't have much hope at the moment.

"The presence of a large number of immigrants without a clear plan for the future in a specific area will lead to a further escalation of tension and social tension," Ben Omar told DW.

Sub-Saharan Africans no longer welcome in Tunisia

Wahid Dahech contributed to this report from the port city of Sfax, Tunisia

Edited by: Carla Bleiker

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Editor and political analyst specializing in the Middle East and North Africa.