Tunisia and Libya strike deal to help migrants stranded at border

Dozens reported dead on desert frontier as hundreds left without shelter or supplies

Migrants gather in a desert area on the Libyan side of the border with Tunisia. AP
Powered by automated translation

Tunisia and Libya on Thursday announced an agreement to share responsibility for hundreds of migrants stranded on the remote desert border between the two countries, where dozens have died in the past month.

The government in Tunis has come under fire for its treatment of sub-Saharan migrants and is facing renewed scrutiny after deporting hundreds of people with no food or water to a desert buffer zone.

At least 27 people have died on the border in recent days, Libyan authorities said on Wednesday, while human rights groups estimate at least 35 have died in the past month, the Associated Press reported.

"We have agreed to share [responsibility for] the groups of migrants who are at the border," a spokesman for the Tunisian Interior Ministry said after a joint meeting with Libyan officials.

No other details were immediately released.

The UN has urged Tunisia to halt the expulsions, which started last month after clashes in the city of Sfax left one resident dead.

Tunisia has replaced Libya as the main departure point for African migration to Europe.

Analysts say the growing number of people fleeing violence and poverty in the Middle East and Africa has led to a rise in anti-migrant and refugee sentiment in the country.

President Kais Saied was widely criticised after claiming that migrants are jeopardising Tunisia's "Arab identity".

Speaking at a meeting of the National Security Council in late February, he described the presence of sub-Saharan migrants as a "form of occupation" and part of a "criminal plan", sparking backlash at home and abroad.

Migrants leaving Tunisia's shores often fail to make it to Europe, with high numbers dying in the Central Mediterranean, what the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees has called the world's deadliest sea crossing.

Only this week, at least 27 migrants were killed in two shipwrecks off Tunisia and the Western Sahara.

Migration has become a major negotiation point between Tunisia and the IMF, as well as the EU.

Tunisia has been told it must uphold previous obligations regarding the prevention of migrant boat crossings, for which it has already received money.

Mr Saied's refusal to permit migrants to settle in Tunisia had thrown future IMF funding into jeopardy. But the President has pledged to curb small-boat departures from his country's shores in an attempt to secure some much-needed finance.

Updated: August 10, 2023, 12:48 PM