Tunisia: The migration trap

Refugees and migrants from across Africa are becoming stranded, unable to return and persecuted by authorities.

A migrant from Africa carries a child next to the seashore, at the Libyan-Tunisian border in Ras Ajdir, Libya
A refugee from Africa carries a child near the Libyan-Tunisian border in Ras Ajdir, Libya, on July 23, 2023 [Hazem Ahmed/Reuters]

Sub-Saharan African refugees and migrants fleeing northwards away from war, conflict and corrupt governments are ending up trapped in Tunisia, unable to move on to Europe or return home.

Across Tunisia, signs of growing hostility towards these arrivals are apparent.

The thousands living in makeshift camps are under pressure from a frustrated population and a government that analysts say is out of options.

On Friday, security forces raided two temporary camps and a protest site in the capital, Tunis, forcing more than 500 refugees onto buses to the Algerian border where they were abandoned. Some others may have been expelled to Libya.

The Refugees in Libya organisation described a wretched journey for the asylum seekers, many travelling with infants, who were refused help from hostile people in Tunisia and blocked from accessing transport back to Tunis.

Outside Sfax, 278km (172 miles) south of Tunis on the coast, thousands of sub-Saharan Africans, many of them registered refugees, shelter in open fields, attacked by security services and residents.

Refugees in Libya shared a video of 400 refugees and migrants they said had been seized from Sfax, as well as some from the Tunis camps, being expelled to Libya on May 2. The only indication the NGO has of what happened to them is a message it received on Tuesday originating from Libya’s al-Assa prison, 19km (12 miles) from the border.

On Monday, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied confirmed the expulsion to the National Security Council, blaming unnamed “others” for the migration crisis before lambasting “traitors” who had allowed them to enter Tunisia.

Competition for limited resources

Living standards in Tunisia are falling, with its own migration statistics testament to a lack of hope.

The high unemployment that caused its 2011 revolution remains, while an estimated 17 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

Some 17,000 irregular Tunisian arrivals landed in Italy in 2023, many from working-class areas where refugees stay, like the industrial areas around Sfax where finding casual labour can be the difference between eating or not.

There, Tunisians find themselves competing with refugees and migrants for diminishing resources.

There has also been a surge in suspicion of outsiders, echoed in Saied’s rhetoric and press attacks on “foreign” NGOs such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, telling the public to distrust them for their international links and blaming them for the “disruptive” refugee presence.

Public figures, including Member of Parliament Badreddine Gammoudi, are also calling for the establishment of citizen militias to fight the “conspiracy” of “suspicious entities” looking to “settle refugees and migrants in Tunisia”.

“Tensions are rising across Tunisia,” Hamza Meddeb, of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said. “We’re seeing the beginning of citizen militias and an angry public attacking the migrants. Something’s going to give … it’s inevitable. Tunisia has basically become a trap for migrants,” he said.

In Sfax, citizens have attacked refugees with fireworks and in the farming and fishing town of al-Amra, they protested against refugees sheltering on farmland, saying farmers needed it to feed their families.

Channelling public suspicions, Saied paints Tunisia as a victim of a conspiracy to overrun it with refugees.

At a Tunisian National Security Council meeting on Monday, he accused “traitors” of receiving millions to do that, claiming to have seen a document “proving” more than 20 million dinars ($6.4m) from an unnamed organisation were being funnelled unofficially for a migrant centre in Sfax.

(Al Jazeera)

Dangerous – but impossible to return home

A common refrain in Tunisia is for Black refugees and migrants to be deported to their countries of origin.

The IOM estimates some 15,000 people are camped in olive groves outside Sfax. The UNHCR said it registered 11,535 refugees between January 2023 and April of this year, bringing the total number in the country to 16,500.

Many are likely sleeping in the fields outside Sfax, or near Zarzis on the Libya border and various other points.

It is uncomfortable and dangerous, but for many, going home is simply not possible.

Salahadin, 26, a former nurse in Sudan, told Al Jazeera in March of leaving El Geneina in West Darfur in August. Returning to Sudan was not an option.

“They [the Rapid Support Forces paramilitary group] killed my people, my family, all of them … killed,” he said flatly.

Abdul, 24, who had worked in the mines of Sierra Leone from the age of eight alongside his father, had a similarly tragic story.

“I saw a lot of the white people there,” he said, describing Lebanese, Israelis and Americans who went to Sierra Leone for its diamonds, gold and cobalt. “I worked with the slaves,” he said. “A lot of child slaves.”

“I saw them [the mine owners] kill people,” he said. “They have this tradition where they kill someone and bury them in the bank. It’s good luck.”

Waters calm as summer approaches

Meddeb of the Carnegie Center said public feeling would not allow Saied to settle migrants at the camp. “Public feeling wouldn’t allow for it. He can’t expel them, either … all he can do is push them around the country and make life difficult for them,” he said.

As the numbers of refugees and migrants increase in Tunisia, the waters between Africa and Europe are calming as summer approaches and passage north becomes easier. Irregular migration will return to the top of the European political agenda.

Italy and the European Union consistently try to externalise their migration concerns to Tunisia and Libya, urging each to halt the flow of desperate people from their shores.

“That migration is thought to be a destabilising force within Europe appears to have become a widely accepted truth, both within Europe and elsewhere,” Ahlam Chemlali, a researcher in migration and externalisation at the Danish Institute for International Studies, said.

“However, there are other factors at work here. We have European [Commission and Parliament] elections coming up and … we’re seeing hardline parties challenging for power in France and Germany, as well as that already governing in Italy. All of them want to deflect from their own problems and be seen as being tough on migration,” she said.

In mid-April, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, with a large ministerial delegation, made a fourth visit in less than a year to Tunisia to conclude deals she later said were hallmarks of her Mattei Plan – partnerships with African states on energy transfers in return for them preventing irregular migration.

In March, the Financial Times reported that the EU was to make 165 million euros ($177m) available to Tunis over three years to help limit migration – far more than the figure the bloc had previously publicly admitted to.

On Thursday, Tunisia’s Interior Minister Kamal Feki met with his counterparts from Libya, Algeria and Italy in Rome to discuss migration. The outcome, while officially unknown, appears to be the destruction of the makeshift camps and border transfers to Libya.

The increased tension in Tunisia is the result of this politicking, Chemlali said. “These are the consequences of border externalisation policies, which de facto are trapping thousands of people within Tunisia, while reinforcing the president’s racialised attacks on migrants and encouraging his deepening authoritarianism.”

Tunisia’s financial difficulties are worsened by Saied refusing to negotiate with the International Monetary Fund, whose requirement of economic reforms he dismissed as “diktats”. Instead, he relies on loans and aid packages from the EU and Arab states to paper over the cracks in the subsidy-reliant economy.

Algeria, in particular, has emerged as a source of both financial support and energy for Tunisia.

“Tunisia has become a diplomatic minnow under Saied,” Meddeb continued. “He’s ideologically and financially subservient to Algeria and Europe. He relies entirely upon Algeria for gas and financial aid,” he said, referring to a $300m loan from Algeria in December.

“If Algeria cuts Tunisia’s gas, it could last on its own for around 24 hours. That’s it. If Algeria wants to push its irregular migrants out, as it appears to, it can direct them back to Niger or, increasingly, into Tunisia.”

Anecdotal reports suggest Algerian security patrols are driving intercepted refugees to the border and telling them to follow old mining tracks into Tunisia and to not return.

Protesters outside the EU Delegation in Tunis demonstrate against the bloc's externalisation policies
Protesters demonstrate outside the European Union delegation in Tunis over the bloc’s externalisation policies (Al Jazeera)

Dead end

Tunisia’s position at the northernmost tip of Africa means it was always likely to be a dead end for the hopes of those fleeing from across the continent.

Conflict in Sudan has displaced 7.5 million people. Coups, the devastating effects of global warming, and intense competition for remaining resources have displaced 13.6 million people this year across Central and West Africa.

What this means to the 30 or so expelled people that the Refugees in Libya NGO are still searching for is uncertain. They are lost in Tunisia’s north.

According to the organisation, trains have barred them from boarding and shopkeepers have refused to serve them, scared of rumours that helping Black refugees has been criminalised.

With no alternative, the men, women and children have resorted to sleeping in caves.

They continue to walk. There isn’t much else they can do.

Source: Al Jazeera