Hope fades as contact is lost with migrants stranded on Tunisia's borders

Hundreds of migrants have been deported since July 5 to a buffer zone between Tunisia, Libya and Algeria after the eruption of clashes with locals in Sfax

'We need help': African migrants remain trapped at Libya-Tunisia border

'We need help': African migrants remain trapped at Libya-Tunisia border
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Tunisian authorities have continued to deport hundreds of sub-Saharan African migrants to militarised buffer areas between Tunisia, Libya and Algeria, a rights group said on Wednesday.

Tunisia began a massive deportation operation last Wednesday following the eruption of clashes between locals and migrants in the southern city of Sfax.

Locals demanded the expulsion of the migrants from the city amid a rise in racially motivated attacks and anti-migrant rhetoric.

A Tunisian man was fatally stabbed last Monday during the violent clashes.

“We are receiving several messages and calls from people who were deported to border areas with both Algeria and Libya,” Hiba, a member of The Alarm Phone organisation, an NGO that helps bring attention to migrants in distress, told The National. She did not wish to reveal her full name.

“These people do not have access to food, water or protection from the elements and as we keep losing contact with many of them, we no longer know if some groups are still alive or not.”

The Alarm Phone said that it has notified both Tunisian authorities and the UN's affiliated refugees and migration bodies, however it has received no response.

“We are losing hope, to be honest,” Hiba said.

She also highlighted how many of the deported include refugees and UN refugee agency-accredited asylum seekers.

“It is their responsibility to intervene as well, but we have not even seen a public statement yet.”

The Alarm Phone and other humanitarian organisations are demanding authorities find a solution to the continuing crisis and to prevent casualties.

“One person who was deported after sustaining an injury is believed to have died, according to other individuals accompanying the deceased,” Hiba said.

The National was able to get in touch with one person from the same group Hiba referred to and they remain stuck in a deserted area on the Tunisian-Libyan borders.

“Please, we need help. We do not have food or water and our phones' batteries are dying … We just want to leave here,” Kalvin from Nigeria told The National via WhatsApp.

Kalvin also said that one person in their group had died due to injuries sustained at the hands of security forces.

“The guy was beaten to death by Tunisian authorities,” he said. He added that the body has not been claimed and is decomposing at the site, with other migrants nearby.

Deportations row

“A delegation [of the Tunisian Red Crescent] will visit the place where these displaced migrants are,” Tunisian President Kais Saied told the organisation’s president, Abdel Latif Chabbou, in a meeting at the Carthage Palace on Saturday.

Mr Saied denied accusations that Tunisia had infringed on the human rights of the migrants through its deportation policy.

“Tunisia can give lessons in humanity to all those placing their bids on it from abroad,” Mr Saied said.

Human Rights Watch urged Tunisian authorities to halt the collective deportation of migrants and asylum seekers, and to enable the delivery of humanitarian assistance to those stranded in the desert.

“Not only is it unconscionable to abuse people and abandon them in the desert, but collective expulsions violate international law,” Human Rights Watch said in a press release last Thursday.

“African migrants and asylum seekers, including children, are desperate to get out of the dangerous border zone and find food, medical care and safety.”

Tunisian authorities transferred some of those who were stranded to shelters in the border city of Ben Guerdene as a temporary solution.

The Tunisian Red Crescent was given limited access to the militarised zone between Tunisia and Libya, where some of the deportees are waiting for either Tunisia or Libya to allow them entry.

Humanitarian organisations have reported that they are unable to locate other expelled migrants who decided to cross the desert.

Racial tension rises

A rise in persecution of migrants has been reported in Tunisia since February following a statement from Mr Saied in which he rejected what he described as “the settlement of migrants in Tunisia”.

He added that there was a plan “to alter its [Tunisia's] demographic structure”, alluding to a conspiracy theory that alleges foreign countries want sub-Saharan Africans to replace Arabs in the country.

Since then, many black people, including Tunisian citizens, have become the target of racist attacks.

Economic migrants, refugees and asylum seekers alike have reported being evicted from their homes, fired from their jobs or violently attacked due to their skin colour.

One migrant was killed in February in Sfax amid rioting.

The growing tension comes as Tunis faces growing pressure from the EU to increase its border control measures and prevent hundreds of boats from attempting to cross to Europe every day, following recent back-to-back visits from European leaders, including European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in June.

Tunisia is expected to sign another agreement between the two sides, which includes further migration-related terms, in the coming days.

However, a date has yet to be set after Tunisian authorities requested an extension to review some of the deal’s clauses.

Updated: July 14, 2023, 4:57 AM