by the migration-control.info project and Alarm Phone Tunis 

The economic crisis in Tunisia is worsening and racist attacks against Tunisia’s Black population are again escalating. Especially in Sfax, Black people are suffering from racially motivated violence. Systematic collective expulsions to the desert of the Libyan-Tunisian and Algerian-Tunisian border zones are carried out by Tunisian security forces – while the EU is visiting Tunisia with more millions to stop migration at any costs.

Racially motivated violence and mass deportations to the desert

After Anti-Black racist pogroms against Tunisia’s Black population already happened in the beginning of the year, triggered also by the publication of a racist statement by the Tunisian President Kais Saied on February 21, the violence against Black migrants in Tunisia is again escalating. In Tunisia’s second largest city, Sfax, violent riots have been going on for days, with mobs repeatedly attacking Black people. Already in June, two anti-migrant demonstrations took place, using racist tropes to incite anti-Black migrant sentiment.

According to reports, large groups of Black people have been expelled from Sfax into the desert by Tunisian security forces since July 2. Up to 1,200 people were brought in buses to the Libyan-Tunisian border by Tunisia’s National Guard and were left behind in the military zone at the border. Others were brought to the Algerian-Tunisian border zone. The deported report that Tunisian security forces beat them, took their food and broke their mobile phones. People who tried to escape Sfax by train, fleeing north towards Tunis, were taken out of the train and were deported in buses to the desert. They are abandoned to die – and they do. Among those expelled are also people in a legalised situation, including asylum seekers and refugees, which apparently does not protect Black people in Tunisia from being collectively expelled and sent to death.

In the face of these mass deportations, UN organisations such as IOM and UNHCR remained silent. In some localities, humanitarian assistance from the Tunisian Red Crescent has been made conditional on people accepting so-called “voluntary return”. Although Tunisian civil society is trying to mobilise to provide emergency assistance, a large proportion of those deported remain inaccessible, being in border areas off-limits to the public.

No one knows what the fate of these people will be. While some are taken to emergency accommodation in border towns, others are deported again as soon as they try to reach Tunisian territory, finding themselves in the crossfire between the Tunisian authorities on the one hand, and the Algerian or Libyan authorities on the other. While these people have been wandering in the desert for several weeks now, many have disappeared. The Alarm Phone hotline has collected reports of dead bodies, and others slowly dying from lack of food and water.

In the Tunisian capital Tunis, the situation is not better either. For nearly five months, the protest of the Refugees in Tunisia, we reported about in the ECHOES, n. 6 from May 2023, has been ongoing. Around 150 people are still camping in front of the headquarters of the IOM, demanding to be evacuated to a place of safety after having lost everything. Their lives are still in danger, the conditions in the camp continue to be terrible An interview with one of the protesters from May 2023 can be found on the migration-control.info blog. 

The situation for Black migrants on land gets worse and worse. But also when crossing the Mediterranean to leave Tunisia, they face violence by the Tunisian Coast Guard. Reports about the theft of engines by the Tunisian Coast Guard accumulate, leaving people adrift in unseaworthy boats, which has already led to the drowning of boats. Recently, the Coast Guard has been accused of firing tear gas into a boat which caused panic on board and led to the sinking of the boat, as InfoMigrants reports. 

But not only non-Tunisians face these brutal practices. Also Tunisians suffer from the violence exerted by security forces. Further, the structural violence of the socio-economic situation but also the crackdown on the Tunisian civil society and against everyone considered an opponent of the president is leading to a constantly increasing number of Tunisians leaving the country. Tunisia is more and more becoming a country that is left by its own citizens. As it is not very likely that the economic situation will improve in the short term, the number of people leaving will continue to rise. Tunisia has already replaced Libya as the main departure point for the route to Europe: according to the UNHCR 37,720 people who departed from Tunisia have arrived in Italy between January 01 and July 9. 

The EU is paying Tunisia’s pogroms

And while human rights are being disregarded on land and sea, the assembled EU delegation is visiting the authoritarian Kais Saied. At the photo session on June 11, Italian post-fascist Meloni, Dutch Prime Minister Rutte, and Commission President von der Leyen appear in a good mood with President Said, announcing what they call their “comprehensive partnership package”. Despite the current developments, the EU will support Tunisia with a total of more than €1 billion of aid in return for better border control and measures against human “smuggling”. The EU Commission is considering up to €900 million in macro-financial assistance and €150 million in immediate budget support. Further €100 million are dedicated for border management, search and rescue, anti-“smuggling” measures and other initiatives, which also means more boats, mobile radar, cameras, vehicles, spare parts and engines for Tunisia’s security forces.

Just eight days after “Team Europe”, as they call themselves, left Tunisia, the German and French Ministers of Interior, Faeser and Darmanin, arrived in Tunisia with more money and border deals in their luggage: more €25 French millions were about to come. Parallelly, the EU Commission announced €150 million more from the foreign policy fund NDICI for „border management and anti-smuggling“. 

The new deal, that was finally signed on Sunday, July 16, that is in fact the continuation of a long history of externalisation policies in Tunisia, is in the eyes of von der Leyen and her Team Europe aiming “to act as a blueprint for similar partnerships in the future”. Cash, equipment and political legitimation for being the border guard of Europe, despite human rights violations of those on the move but also of local populations – we have observed these policies for decades. 

These deals are even more worrying than they were before, given the current reform of the Common European Asylum System which includes that the likelihood to be granted asylum also depends on if people seeking asylum entered the EU via so-called safe third countries. “The EU can determine these at its convenience. The classification of Turkey, Tunisia, and some Balkan states, for example, would cover practically all arrivals” – and it is likely to happen that Tunisia is classified as a safe third country. The consequence: more deportations to a country that is neither safe for non-Tunisians nor for Tunisians. 

International Resistance and Solidarity

The images of the attacks of Black people in Sfax, those of abandoned people dying of thirst in the desert, being unable to move forward or backward in the military zone between Libya and Tunisia, are unbearable.

The EU-Tunisia deal that is put in place rewards the Tunisian security apparatus with more money and equipment, bolsters Anti-Black racism while also repressing Tunisia’s civil society and is legitimising the ongoing violence. It is in line with the EU’s migration policies that have violated freedom of movement for years, having led to violence and death along the EU’s external borders. But how to successfully fight these ongoing practices if  “denouncing the torture practices of al-Sisi’s regime in Cairo, the violence against detained refugees by Libyan militias, or the crimes of the RSF fails to attract attention as it is”? It is true, we “need new counter-strategies — against deals with autocrats, the CEAS, and the exclusionary understanding of refugee rights and protection currently being revived,” as pointed out by Sofian Philip Naceur. 

What is for sure is that the European deals won’t stop migration movements and that people will continue to cross the Mediterranean. Blocking the route for Tunisians, would jeopardise the country’s social stability, a scenario that the political elite wants to prevent.

Despite the dangers that European externalisation policies exacerbate, arrival numbers in Lampedusa are likely to stay high and people will continue to move in search of a better life. For the freedom of movement! Tear down Europe’s borders!

Article published in Echoes#7 – Moving on.