Tunisian security forces have expelled hundreds of Black African people from Sfax to the border region with Libya, according to rights groups, a day after a Tunisian man was killed during violent confrontations in the southeastern city.
A house raid on Sunday in Sfax, the second most populous city in Tunisia, resulted in 48 arrests and the eviction of 20 people by the military to the border region, the NGO Alarm Phone, which supports distressed people crossing the Mediterranean, initially reported.
Six women, two of whom were pregnant, and a 16-year-old girl were among them.
Security forces beat the evictees, throwing away their food and smashing their phones, according to Lauren Seibert, a refugee and migrant rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.
They were reportedly dropped on the Libyan side of the border, but fled back to Tunisia after encountering armed men.
“These migrants & asylum seekers… are stranded in a closed, militarized Tunisia-Libya border zone,” said Seibert on Tuesday. “We informed UN agencies but #Tunisia authorities have not yet granted access for them to help these people.”
As of Wednesday, the number stranded at the militarised border between the two countries increased to between 400 and 500, according to testimonies sent to Human Rights Watch.
Footage sent to the rights group shows huge numbers of people, including many children, in the militarised border area. One of the videos shows people being forced to sleep overnight on the ground in the desert.
Mass expulsions of migrants from Tunisia 📌
Migrants in #Sfax has seen unrest in the last 24 hours as the government and the common people take laws into their hands and are expelling vulnerable women, children and men to the Sahara Desert
They are dumped without food and water pic.twitter.com/jh9G3hw28W
— Refugees In Libya (@RefugeesinLibya) July 4, 2023
“They told me of violence, people are dying, some women raped who went to Libya side,” Seibert said, adding that it was not possible at this time to corroborate their allegations.
MEE has reached out to the Tunisian government and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) for comment.
The expulsions follow days of unrest between Tunisian nationals and Black Africans in Sfax.
A Tunisian man was stabbed to death during violent confrontations, a judicial official said on Tuesday, adding that three sub-Saharan Africans suspected of being responsible were arrested. Police fired teargas in an attempt to break up the fighting.
A house inhabited by sub-Saharan Africans was set on fire in response to the killing, according to reports on social media.
In recent weeks, Tunisians in Sfax have held protests against the presence of refugees. The coastal city is a key access point to Europe for many people attempting to cross the Mediterranean.
The EU has pledged financial support to Tunisia to help it deal with the migration crisis in the country.
President Kais Saied said last month that Tunisia would not be responsible for stopping irregular migration to Europe, and “refuses to be a place of transit or settlement for migrants”.
In February, Saied linked people from sub-Saharan Africa in the country to criminality, in comments that were widely denounced as racist.
“There has been a criminal plan since the beginning of the century to change the demographic structure of Tunisia, and there are parties that received large sums of money after 2011 for the settlement of illegal immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa,” he said.
Several commentators likened Saied’s comment to the notion of “the great replacement”, a conspiracy theory that white people in Europe are being usurped by foreigners, mainly from Africa and the Middle East.
The speech was even endorsed publicly by Eric Zemmour, a far-right French political figure who launched a presidential bid last year built around that conspiracy theory.
In March, the World Bank suspended its work with Tunisia after Black Africans were attacked in the country following the speech.
The World Bank’s outgoing president, David Malpass, said Saied’s tirade had triggered “racially motivated harassment and even violence” and that the institution had postponed a planned meeting with Tunisia until further notice, while it assesses the situation.
MEE reported that social media was being used to spread hate speech and conspiracy theories about sub-Saharan Africans in Tunisia, days after Saied’s remarks.
Tunisia has been engulfed in political and economic crises since July 2021, when Saied unilaterally suspended parliament and dissolved the government in what many have called a “constitutional coup”.
He subsequently ruled by decree, before pushing through a new constitution that enshrined his one-man rule.