Human rights organizations in Tunisia have shared video of Tunisian officials taking a group of migrants to the Libyan border on September 27 and abandoning them in the desert. The group consisted of roughly a hundred men, women, and children, including at least three pregnant women, who were intercepted while attempting to reach Europe by boat. One of the men we met with detailed how the group had been left stranded.
At least nine recordings from the incident show Tunisian officials arresting a group of migrants on September 26 and then deporting and abandoning them in the Libyan desert the next day.
On the night of September 26, the Tunisian Coast Guard intercepted a group of migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa and Tunisians who were attempting to reach Italy by boat. Many migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa were forcibly deported to Libya and left trapped in the desert while the Tunisians were released.
A passenger’s camera captures men, women, and little children on a bus bound for the Libyan border.
Another video shows a dozen people who say they are “in the desert” on the Libyan-Tunisian border and have no one to aid them. They further claim that officials mistreated them.
In a third video, a man photographs a woman who is “eight months pregnant, hasn’t eaten in few days, and is frail,” according to the man.
‘When we expressed our desire to remain in Tunisia, the National Guard intimidated, insulted, and physically assaulted us.’
On the night of September 26, Eric (not his real name) was one of the persons who was apprehended while attempting to reach Italy by boat. Tunisian authorities then deported him to the Libyan border.
“They released the Tunisians and detained the individuals from Sub-Saharan Africa after arresting us on the boats. The next day, they forced us to board buses without informing us of our destination. Children, pregnant ladies, and elderly women were among those in the group. After a five-hour drive, they separated us into three groups and loaded us into pickup trucks heading for the desert.
We attempted to show them our passports, but the National Guard members who accompanied us seemed uninterested. Our countries, they claimed, did not have immigration agreements with Tunisia.
We were left in a zone that runs for roughly 20 kilometers along the Libyan-Tunisian border. The officials pointed us in the direction of Libya and urged us to “follow the route down there.” When other people came up and expressed their desire to remain in Tunisia, the National Guard intimidated, insulted, and physically assaulted us. Some individuals began walking down the road, but others, including myself, refused.
I was in the company of a nine-month-pregnant woman. She was extremely thirsty and complaining of stomach aches.”
According to our Observer, the expectant woman gave birth in the desert when a hospital declined to accept her.
Our crew, on the other hand, interacted with personnel from the International Organization for Migration, who told us a different story. The woman had been rescued and given birth at Ben Guerdane Hospital, according to them. They went on to say that she was given food and other aid.
Eric, on the other hand, was able to return to Tunisia.
“We were finally able to catch a bus back to Sfax, Tunisia. I’ve been working various jobs to make ends meet here. National Guardsmen threatened to kill us when we were in the desert. But, honestly, I’d rather die than be stranded in the desert now that I think about it.”
According to activists in the area, at least two persons returned to Sfax after being abandoned in the desert. They claim they haven’t heard from most of the refugees, owing to the fact that their “mobile phones are dead.”
‘Unfortunately, these deportations are common and are carried out in secret.’
On October 3, eight Tunisian NGOs issued a united statement verifying the incidents described by our eyewitness. They expressed concern over Tunisian authorities’ treatment of the group, which they claimed included at least three pregnant women.
The statement runs as follows:
“These individuals are said to be held in a private residence near Zouara, not far from the border. The kidnappers are demanding roughly $500 per individual in exchange for their release. Libyan officials are said to have apprehended another group of migrants who were stranded in Ras Jedir. […] The Tunisian authorities’ actions are in violation of the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugee Rights, which Tunisia ratified in 1957.”
Romdhane Ben Amor, communications officer at the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, one of the organizations that signed the joint statement, was contacted by our team:
Unfortunately, these deportations are routine and are carried out in secret. In general, authorities seize the cell phones of those being transported to the border, ensuring that no one may take images or recordings.
However, in this case, the migrants were able to keep their phones and film the entire process, including the bus ride, their time in a detention center in the Medinine region, and what happened after they were dropped off in the desert [Editor’s note: In August 2019, 36 Ivory Coast migrants were similarly deported to the Libyan border by Tunisian officials and left without assistance].
By intercepting as many boats as possible, the police are upholding the European goal of fighting immigration. An estimated 5,582 migrants were stopped in the middle of their trek in August. Sub-Saharan Africa accounted for almost 30% of the total.
The issue is that there is virtually no space left in Tunisia’s immigration detention centers, and there is no coordination in terms of how migrants are treated. The situation is stressful, and there are many fights between the local population and migrants in the Sfax region, due to the government’ poor management of the situation. As a result, governors are deciding to dump migrants at the border these days.
‘We’re sending them to their deaths,’ says the narrator.
What is the purpose of sending migrants to Libya? Because it is assumed that they entered Tunisia via crossing the Libyan border. However, in most cases, this judgment is made without any evidence of how they arrived.
So we send people to a nation [Libya] that has the resources and infrastructure to help refugees [Editor’s note: Libya has no laws protecting migrants’ rights to asylum, and there have been numerous allegations of migrants being tortured or hurt there]. We are, without a doubt, sending them to their deaths.
Representatives from the Tunisian National Guard were contacted, but they refused to comment on the matter and advised we contact the Coast Guard or the Ministry of the Interior instead. Our repeated efforts for comment were ignored by the ministry.
Since early September, Tunisian officials have been capturing migrants discovered attempting to enter Europe and transporting them to the border. Despite this, Italy claimed that more than 4,800 migrants arrived in the nation in the first half of 2020, up 20% over the same period the previous year.
Source: The Observer