Accessibility links

Breaking News

Tunisia: Trouble on Land, Sea for Black African Migrants

FILE - Migrants of African origin are crammed on board of a small boat as Tunisian coast guards prepare to transfer them onto their vessel, at sea between Tunisia and Italy, Aug. 10, 2023.

WASHINGTON — Tunisia has faced increasing scrutiny over the treatment of Black African migrants following reports of expulsions, attacks, deaths and controversial comments by President Kais Saied, as Europe-bound migrants continue perilous Mediterranean crossings through the North African country.

Racial tensions have been rising with thousands of migrants flocking to Tunisia — especially the eastern port city of Sfax — to reach Italy and other European countries.

Tunisia violently expelled hundreds of asylum seekers and migrants — both regular and irregular — from sub-Saharan Africa to neighboring Libya beginning in July, according to Human Rights Watch. Witnesses told the rights organization that migrants were mostly Ivorian, Cameroonian, Malian, Guinean, Chadian, Sudanese and Senegalese, and at least 29 children and three pregnant women were affected.

While denying allegations of mistreatment and the "collective" expulsion of migrants, Tunisia’s interior minister conceded in an interview with The Associated Press that small groups of Black African migrants had been pushed to its borders with Libya and Algeria.

At least 27 Black African migrants died on the desert journey to the border, Libya’s interior ministry said on Facebook, adding that it would investigate the deaths.

An image widely shared on social media last month of the dead bodies of a Black woman and girl face down in the sand drew outrage over the migrants' plight.

Following the reports, Tunisia and Libya struck a deal to provide shelter to 276 sub-Saharan African migrants stranded along their border.

The U.N. refugee agency confirmed to VOA in a written statement that all the stranded migrants on the Tunisian side were transferred to International Organization for Migration shelters in Medenine and Tataouine.

In Libya, 144 individuals were transferred to Alassah Border facility, it said.

"People previously stranded at the Tunisian-Libyan border have been transferred to detention centers operated by the Directorate for Combatting Illegal Migration (DCIM). UNHCR visited those detention centers to follow up and provide assistance and support to these individuals according to their individual needs and assist them in uniting with their communities."

The Tunisian Red Crescent and Libyan Border Guard also report that all the migrants have been relocated from the border.

Tensions and president’s comments

In a February speech to his security council, the president said sub-Saharan African migrants were part of a plot to change the country’s demographics, calling the situation "unnatural" and saying "hordes of irregular migrants" were bringing "violence, crime and unacceptable practices."

Reports of attacks and discrimination against the migrants increased following Saied's comments, which also saw a spike in the number of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean.

"When the president gave his speech, everything changed," said Joseph Milk, a Liberian migrant who has been living and working in Tunisia's capital, Tunis, for five years. "My boss told me to leave work. The house I was staying in — they told me to leave."

There are currently around 80,000 undocumented migrants in Tunisia, according to authorities.

Youssef Cherif, the director of Columbia Global Centers in Tunis, says the rise in migration has created resentment among some Tunisians who feel resources are being diverted away from them.

"Most of these newcomers, they go to underprivileged neighborhoods, so they live in very small houses, in places that are already crowded, and this also led to several issues between them and the Tunisian inhabitants."

"If you look at the basics of the tensions, there is racism for sure, but there are also economic problems," Cherif said, adding that "creating economic opportunities in these underprivileged neighborhoods where Tunisians and migrants co-habit may alleviate the tensions."

Last month, the European Union and Tunisia signed a deal to combat illegal migration, with the EU pledging 100 million euros ($112 million) to the effort — a move decried by critics due to concerns over the treatment of migrants.

July also marked two years since Tunisia's parliament was dismissed by the president, who has since further consolidated his power.

"What we saw systematically from then on was Saied dismantling not only the democratic state and democratic institutions such as the elected Supreme Judicial Council, but also actually quite fundamental parts of the state itself through decrees," Elizia Volkman, a Tunisia political analyst and reporter, who has contributed to VOA, said.

Analysts have said the president's comments regarding sub-Saharan African migrants may have been an attempt to shore up popular support.

Troubled Seas

Edna Kemorsay, a Sierra Leonean migrant who crossed the Sahara desert heavily pregnant hoping to reach Italy by way of Tunisia, is still waiting for her chance to start a new life in Europe.

"This country is not easy to live in," said the mother of 1-month-old Ishmael, who has only known life in a Tunis migrant camp.

The Mediterranean has a long history of irregular migration tied to North Africa, but the numbers have increased dramatically in recent years.

Tunisian authorities say they have rescued more than 34,000 migrants off the country’s shores in the first six months of this year, compared to 9,000 in 2022.

More than 2,000 migrants have gone missing this year alone while attempting to cross the Mediterranean, according to the International Organization For Migration.

Some information in this report came from The Associated Press. Lisa Bryant contributed.