Tunisian rights groups have issued a call for immediate emergency aid and shelter for migrants who were expelled from Sfax last week. In support of their plight, dozens of people gathered in Tunis to protest and express solidarity with the stranded migrants.
The city of Sfax, Tunisia’s second-largest city, witnessed racial tensions escalate following the killing of a Tunisian man on July 3 during a confrontation between locals and migrants. As a result, hundreds of migrants either fled or were forcibly removed from the city.
Sfax’s port serves as a departure point for migrants from impoverished and violence-stricken countries who seek a better life in Europe by undertaking a perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea, often aboard makeshift boats.
Following the unrest in Sfax, hundreds of migrants were forcibly relocated to desert areas on the borders of Libya and Algeria. Romdane Ben Amor, spokesperson for the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), revealed that between 100 and 150 migrants, including women and children, remain stranded on the border with Libya. Ben Amor stated that approximately 165 migrants abandoned near the border with Algeria have been rescued, but did not provide specific details regarding the rescuers or their destination.
Ben Amor expressed concern over the precarious situation of the migrants, some of whom are hiding in the wild under catastrophic conditions out of fear of being detected and facing a similar fate as those stranded on the borders. He called on the authorities to provide emergency accommodation for the migrants and urged Tunisian citizens, regardless of their status, to assist them.
In a show of solidarity, around 100 protesters gathered in Tunis on Friday evening in response to a call from an anti-fascist coalition. They expressed their support for undocumented migrants and criticized Tunisia’s police for their actions, chanting slogans such as “Tunisia is African. No to racism, down with fascism.”
Meanwhile, the head of a Cameroonian association reported “arbitrary arrests” of sub-Saharan Africans near the train station in Zarzis, located south of Sfax. Eric Tchata claimed that around 300 individuals had been arrested solely based on their skin color. He posted a video online, allegedly depicting a group of people, including women and children, crammed into a warehouse in Medenine, also located south of Sfax.
Ben Amor voiced his fear that migrants could lose their lives if they are not immediately provided with aid and shelter. He highlighted that two bodies had already been discovered. Human Rights Watch has stated that the migrants have been left to fend for themselves in the border regions without water or shelter, where temperatures exceed 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).
Tunisia has witnessed an increase in racially motivated attacks since President Kais Saied accused “hordes” of migrants from sub-Saharan African countries of instigating violence in February. He alleged a “criminal plot” to alter the country’s demographic makeup. Naila Zoghlami, the head of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, noted that the president’s remarks gave individuals a license to mistreat migrants. She highlighted the heightened vulnerability of women from sub-Saharan African countries, with several reporting incidents of rape.
President Saied recently reaffirmed that what Tunisia offers to migrants is superior to what they would find elsewhere. However, he emphasized the nation’s refusal to serve as a land of transit or settlement. Additionally, he reiterated his claims that Tunisia is a victim of criminal human trafficking networks.
Ben Amor dismissed the president’s statements, arguing that expelling children and women is not an act of humanity, as President Saied had suggested.
A joint statement issued on Friday by 28 non-governmental organizations, both local and international, as well as trade unions and political parties, criticized President Saied. They condemned his speech for inciting criminal behavior and providing a blank check for violent acts against migrants.
On Sunday, a high-ranking European delegation is scheduled to visit Tunis to sign an agreement providing financial aid to the North African country with the aim of addressing illegal migration.