The UN's refugee agency has called for the urgent rescue of hundreds of migrants who remain stranded in a remote military buffer zone on the Tunisia-Libya border.
The UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration issued a joint statement expressing concern for the safety of the migrants who have been pushed back towards Libya after Tunisian authorities launched a massive deportation operation on July 5.
The move followed clashes between locals and migrants in the southern Tunisian city of Sfax.
City residents demanded the expulsion of the migrants as racially motivated attacks and anti-migrant rhetoric increased.
Videos posted online by the Libyan national guard show dozens of people pleading for water after being stuck in the desert in scorching heat for days.
Libyan authorities and the country's Red Crescent reported the discovery of the bodies of migrants, including women and children, on the Tunisian-Libyan border. They are believed to have died of thirst and hunger.
In a statement the IOM and UNHCR said “search and rescue efforts are urgently needed for those who remain stranded on both sides of the border” and called for a “timely resolution of this situation”.
“Access to territory and safety for new arrivals in need of international protection must also be provided in accordance with international obligations,” the UNHCR and IOM added, referring to migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.
The Tunisian Ministry of interior denied the seriousness of the humanitarian crisis and warned on Thursday that “it does not accept any allegations or fabrications that would harm Tunisia’s image”. In a statement, the ministry also accused unnamed parties of attempting to use the migration issue for ulterior political motives.
Minister of Defence Imed Memich told the Tunisian parliament on Friday morning that the crisis had become a matter of national security. He called on all military units to co-ordinate to carry out their duties according to the law.
The rise in anti-migrant rhetoric in Tunisia follows inflammatory statements made by President Kais Saied in February where he alleged, without providing evidence, that there is a “criminal plot” to change “the demographic composition” of Tunisia through the settlement of sub-Saharan African migrants in the country.
The statement instigated a witch hunt and forced several West African countries including Burkina Faso, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mali and Senegal to repatriate hundreds of their nationals from Tunisia as racially-motivated attacks rose.
On Thursday night, Gambia repatriated 40 citizens from Tunisia, a number whom had also been stranded in Libya, following co-ordination between the Gambian government and the IOM.
On Wednesday, the West African nation repatriated 87 of its citizens from Libya, a Gambian foreign ministry spokeswoman told AFP.
In early July, Human Rights Watch documented dozens of testimonies from sub-Saharan migrants stranded in a military buffer zone between Tunisia, Libya and Algeria, which said Tunisian security forces pushed them towards the desert, with no food, water or other designated places to go.
The National also spoke to a Nigerian man who said he was stuck with a group of people on the Tunisian-Libyan border without water or food.
The man said one person in his group had died after being injured by Tunisian security forces.