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Tunisia: migrants face dire conditions in makeshift camp amid EU funding controversy

February 6, 2024 at 11:47 am

Migrants gather outside the offices of the International organisation for Migration (OIM) after Tunisian police dismantled a makeshift camp for refugees from sub-Saharan African countries in front of the UNHCR headquarters in Tunis, on April 12, 2023 [FETHI BELAID/AFP via Getty Images]

Migrants in the southern cities of Tunisia, predominantly from Sub-Saharan African countries, are enduring appalling living conditions and facing severe human rights abuses as they attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe, Anadolu has reported. Living in makeshift tents without access to basic amenities such as clean water, sanitation and proper shelter, these migrants are trapped in a cycle of desperation and vulnerability.

Many of those who have been living in migrant neighbourhoods in Tunisia risk their lives on overcrowded boats in the hope of reaching Europe. However, tragically, some perish at sea, highlighting the perilous nature of their journey. Those who remain face daily struggles against police brutality, arbitrary arrests, the theft of their meagre belongings, and other forms of abuse by the Tunisian authorities.

Last July, Tunisia relocated more than 4,000 people alone to military buffer zones on the borders with Libya and Algeria.

Speaking out about their harrowing experiences, one Nigerian migrant, Remontana, told Anadolu this week that they are tired of the dire conditions in Tunisia. He lamented the constant harassment and theft by police, expressing disbelief at the lack of freedom and protection. “We are tired, we are human beings, we are not animals,” he said, appealing to the authorities to find a way for them to leave Tunisia.

Odette, a young woman from Cameroon, described the living conditions as akin to hell, recounting the challenges of basic survival, including the lack of sanitary products and adequate clothing. “Every day we run away from the police,” she pointed out. “They take our phones, our money.” She added that she came to Tunisia with her brothers and sister, but lost contact with them. “I don’t even know where they are. There is crisis going on in my country. I even lost my dad because of the crisis. They get our houses. I don’t have anywhere to go. I’m devastated,” she added through her tears.

Data from Italy’s interior ministry says that more than 155,750 migrants and refugees arrived in Italy by sea in 2023, marking a nearly 50 per cent increase on 2022. The route across the central Mediterranean from North Africa to Italy has emerged as the most heavily trafficked and deadliest migration route into Europe.

According to figures provided by the International Organisation for Migration, over 2,750 migrants and refugees lost their lives or went missing while attempting to cross the central Mediterranean last year, the highest toll since 2017.

Tunisia is one of the main launching points for boats carrying refugees and migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean for Europe, with most heading for Italy, in particular its island of Lampedusa. Despite documented abuses by Tunisian police, military and coast guard against black African migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, the European Union (EU) last September announced a new “strategic partnership” with the government in Tunis, accompanied by a substantial funding package of up to €1 billion. This funding includes provisions for border management, search and rescue operations, and anti-smuggling measures.

However, human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) have criticised the EU’s approach, citing a failure to include guarantees that Tunisian authorities would respect the rights of migrants and asylum seekers. There are concerns that EU financial support may inadvertently contribute to or enable further human rights violations by Tunisian security forces.

Lauren Seibert, a researcher at HRW, highlighted the systemic abuse and racism faced by Black African migrants in Tunisia, and called for the suspension of EU funding to Tunisian security forces until clear human rights benchmarks are established.

In light of the ongoing abuses and the failure of the Tunisian authorities to ensure adequate protection for migrants and asylum seekers, the country cannot be considered a safe place for disembarkation or a “safe third country” for transfers of asylum seekers, said HRW.

READ: Migrants in Tunisia transferred to Libya prisons