29th Sep 2023

Tensions and a murder at Tunisia's departure port for Lampedusa

  • Tensions between Tunisians and migrants in Sfax reached a tipping point on 3 July after a Tunisian man was killed in clashes with sub-Saharan migrants (Photo: Josephus Thomas)
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Sub-Saharan migrants in Tunisia's coastal town of Sfax are "afraid for their lives" amid a violent crackdown against them that has resulted in hundreds of attacks, evictions, and expulsions to the Libyan border, say rights groups and migrants.

The racist backlash has reignited scrutiny over a proposed €1bn-plus EU-Tunisia migration deal that would bolster Tunisia's security services and encourage frontline European states to send asylum-seekers back to the North African country.

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Tensions between Tunisians and migrants in Sfax reached a tipping point on 3 July after a Tunisian man was killed in clashes with sub-Saharan migrants.

Citizens, egged on by a local deputy who shared footage appearing to show the deceased Tunisian's body, called for reprisals and to expel sub-Saharans from the city, leading to widespread attacks.

Khalid, an 18-year-old migrant from Sudan who was in Sfax during the unrest, told the EUobserver that he was violently chased out of the city by mobs.

"They kicked us out of our homes and beat us on the streets," said Khalid, who took a train out of Sfax to flee the violence. "They dragged us out... some people had their hands broken. We are really suffering (in Sfax) and people have no sympathy."

Hundreds of other migrants, including pregnant women and children, were rounded up by police and dumped more than 300km away in a remote, desert zone near the Libyan border, rights groups reported, their belongings taken away and their phones smashed.

"They are still stuck there with basically no food or water," Lauren Seibert, a refugees and migrant rights researcher at Human Rights Watch who is in communication with several of the stranded migrants, told the EUobserver on Thursday (6 July). "There are armed forces on one side (Libya) forcing them to go back — and if they go the other way, same thing."

"This violates international law in so many ways. It is a mass expulsion," she added

On Tuesday, Tunisia's judiciary began targeting locals who provide shelter to migrants as well, arresting and indicting three Tunisians for "housing illegal migrants."

"The president insists that the law must be enforced," including by penalising those who "rent to undocumented foreigners," said a statement by the Tunisian presidency on 4 July .

Sfax, Tunisia's second-largest city, has become a hub for sub-Saharan migrants because it is the closest departure point for Europe, just 190km from the Italian island of Lampedusa. So far in 2023, some 56,000 migrants, many of sub-Saharan origin, have reached EU territory through risky sea crossings, with Tunisia's town of Sfax as the primary launching point.

Migrants' growing presence in Sfax has set off tensions with locals, who often view them as adversaries vying for jobs and resources in Tunisia's floundering economy. Hostility grew in February when Tunisian President Kais Saied accused sub-Saharan migrants of being a demographic threat to the country.

Dina Cheffi, a human rights activist from Sfax, said the latest unrest has put the city on the verge of a "social war." "People blame sub-Saharans for the rise in prices and poor living conditions," she told the EU Observer, "even though they are not responsible. They are the perfect scapegoats."

The anti-migrant campaign in Tunisia has also put the EU in a tough spot as it negotiates a €1bn plus deal with the north African country that would help secure its support with border management, amid a major jump in sea-bound arrivals to Europe this year.

Under the proposed deal, the EU would provide Tunisia with €150m in immediate budget support; €100m for border control, search and rescue operations, and migrants' returns; and an additional €900m in crucial economic assistance.

The deal has drawn comparisons to the 2016 EU-Turkey 'cash-for-migrants' deal that convinced Ankara to resettle more than one million refugees in its territory.

Even before the recent surge of anti-migrant violence, the EU-Tunisia deal had drawn criticism from rights activists, who argued that it amounted to economic blackmail against Tunisia and would lead to the outsourcing of abusive security practices. The recent wave of attacks against migrants has only intensified these concerns.

"The EU cannot fund a system that is abusive to migrants," said Seibert. "The latest chunk of proposed funding (proposed EU-Tunisia migration deal) is a red flag."

Tunisia's president, meanwhile, has reiterated that Tunisia will not become "Europe's border police" or a "country for resettlement." However, he also understands that negotiation with the EU is one of the few ways to find budget assistance he desperately needs to plug a multi-billion dollar deficit this year.

Talks between Tunisia and EU members on migration continued as recently as 4 July, following flash visits from high-ranking EU officials to Tunis in June. While the EU had aimed to finalize a memorandum of understanding with Tunisia on migration-related assistance by the end of the European Council on 30 June, Tunisia asked for more time to review its conditions.

The push to conclude a migration pact with Tunisia comes after the EU overhauled its migration policy to allow frontline countries, such as Italy, more leighway to send asylum-seekers back to states like Tunisia if they deem them "safe."

However, for migrants like Josephus, a 30-year-old from Sierra Leone who is among hundreds camped out in tents near the headquarters of the UN's International Organization of Migration (IOM) in Tunis, the widespread targeting of migrants in Tunisia confirms that he needs to get out of the country at any cost.

"The EU's border policies are suffocating us," Josephus told the EU Observer. "At this point, we don't even care if we go to Europe, we just need to get out of Tunisia. We need to be evacuated before we die."

Author bio

Stephen Quillen is a Tunis-based journalist and editor covering North African affairs. He has also written for The Telegraph, Al Monitor, Middle East Eye, and The Arab Weekly.

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