In early July, Tunisian authorities forcibly expelling hundreds of Black migrants and refugees from Sfax, Tunisia’s second-largest city. Al Jazeera found many of them days later without food or water, wandering through the desert “no man’s land” on the border between Tunisia and Libya.
Earlier this year, President Kais Saied accused this vulnerable population of criminal behavior and warned of a conspiracy to replace Tunisian citizens. So what is being done to help these people?
Tunisian security forces have collectively expelling several hundred Black African migrants and asylum seekers, including children and pregnant women, since July 2, 2023 to a remote, militarized buffer zone at the Tunisia-Libya border, Human Rights Watch said today.
The group includes people with both regular and irregular legal status in Tunisia, expelled without due process. Many reported violence by authorities during arrest or expulsion.
“The Tunisian government should halt collective expulsions and urgently enable humanitarian access to the African migrants and asylum seekers already expelled to a dangerous area at the Tunisia-Libya border, with little food and no medical assistance,” said Lauren Seibert, refugee and migrant rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“Not only is it unconscionable to abuse people and abandon them in the desert, but collective expulsions violate international law.
Between July 2 and 6, Human Rights Watch interviewed five people by phone who had been expelling, including an Ivorian asylum seeker and four migrants: two Ivorian men, a Cameroonian man, and a 16-year-old Cameroonian girl. Interviewees’ names are not used for their protection.
They could not give an exact number, but estimated that Tunisian authorities had expelled between 500 and 700 people since July 2 to the border area, around 35 kilometers east of the town Ben Guerdane. They arrived in at least four different groups, ranging in size.
The people expelling were of many African nationalities – Ivorian, Cameroonian, Malian, Guinean, Chadian, Sudanese, Senegalese, and others – and included at least 29 children and three pregnant women, interviewees said.
At least six expelled people were asylum seekers registered with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), while at least two adults had consular cards identifying them as students in Tunisia.
People interviewed said they had been arrested in raids by police, national guard, or military in and near Sfax, a port city southeast of the capital, Tunis.
National guard and military forces rapidly transported them 300 kilometers to Ben Guerdane, then to the Libya border, where they were effectively trapped in what they described as a buffer zone from which they could neither enter Libya nor return to Tunisia.
Tensions have been high in Sfax for months as Tunisian residents campaigned for African foreigners to leave, escalating to recent attacks against Black Africans and clashes with Tunisians. A man from Benin was killed in May and a Tunisian man on July 3.
Videos circulating on social media in early July depicted groups of Tunisian men threatening Black Africans with batons and knives, and in other videos, security officers shoving Black Africans into vans while people cheered.
Those interviewed alleged that several people died or were killed at the border area between July 2 and 5 – including, they said, some shot and others beaten by Tunisian military or national guard. They also said that Libyan men carrying machetes or other weapons had robbed some people and raped several women, either in the buffer zone or after they managed to cross into Libya to look for food.
No nongovernmental groups had access to the area, so Human Rights Watch could not independently confirm these accounts.
One video the migrants sent to Human Rights Watch showed a woman describing sexual assault apparently by Tunisian security forces. In another video, a woman says she had a miscarriage after the expulsion.
The security forces threw away their food, smashed their phones, and left them at the border, the Ivorian man said. Two armed men in uniform from Libya later approached them and ordered them to return to Tunisia, he said, while on the other side, Tunisian military beat several men who sought to cross back to Tunisia.
Two men in a second expelled group, Cameroonian and Ivorian, said they and others had been arrested during raids on their houses in Sfax, on July 3 between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m., by police, national guard, and military. They said that authorities did not ask for anyone’s documents or record their personal information, though some were in Tunisia legally; instead, they drove them swiftly overnight to Ben Guerdane.
“We are at the Tunisia-Libya border, at the seaside,” said an Ivorian asylum seeker on July 4. “We were beaten. We have many injured people here.…We have children who haven’t eaten for days … forced to drink sea water. We have a [Guinean] pregnant woman who went into labor … she died this morning … the baby died too.”