Struggles of Refugees in Tunisia

The Refugees in Tunisia protesting in front of the UNHCR headquarters in Tunis, March 2023

On April 11th 2023, the refugees and migrants who were carrying out a sit-in in front of the offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees  (UNHCR)  in  the  Tunisian capital Tunis were violently evicted by police forces. For over a month, around 250 people had been holding a peaceful  occupation  to  demand  evacuation  to  a  safe country, as their living conditions in Tunisia had become unbearable. Due to the threats posed to the lives of Black migrants and refugees in Tunisia during the prior months (and especially after the racist speech by the Tunisian President end of February), they had turned to the UNHCR to ask for protection. 

The UNHCR however failed to support them with even the  most  basic  necessities,  such  as  food,  water  and shelter, and further escalated the situation by calling the police to evict the protesters’ camp. During the eviction, the police attacked people, including children with tear gas, causing serious injuries.

The UNHCR’s neglect  of  refugees  and  the  agency’s contribution to the violence faced by people in exile has also been documented in other countries.  Refugees in Libya have been denouncing the UNHCR’s inaction in the conflict-ridden country for years.  Also in Tunisia, the mistreatment of refugees and migrants by the UNHCR has a long history. 

The collection of testimonies below, by the Refugees in Tunisia, shows the degradation of their situation and gives more details about the protest sit-in at the UNHCR in Tunis and its violent eviction. The testimonies were collected in April 2023 by activists based in Tunis. 

“I came in front of UNHCR because I was attacked following the discourse of the president. Some took the chance to rob and attack us. Some Tunisians stole everything in our house in Ariana [a peripheral neighbourhood north of Tunis]. They were more than 50 boys. They were armed with stones and sticks. This is why I came here in front of UNHCR, for protection because my wife is pregnant and needs protection. Our safety is not guaranteed in Tunisia. We cannot stay here.”

[E., explaining why he came to protest in front of the UNHCR, 14.04.23]

“The police attacked everyone, also women and children. They used tear gas. When they threw the tear gas into the crowd, chaos broke out. The first concern of people was to evacuate the place.”

 [A, talking about the day when the protest was evicted, 13.04.23]

“When I heard that the police were attacking our camp, I came back to support my wife. But there was so much tear gas when I arrived that I fainted down. When I woke up, I was in the police station. I woke up in a big room with policemen, armed with wooden sticks. The policemen were beating the people in the police station. We were around 150 migrants detained in the police station. […] We were about 80 people taken to prison. The people who did not want to give fingerprints were beaten. It was so painful. […]
In the police station, all of us were beaten but some of us more (the ones that were in front during the demonstrations… the people who are more active in the protest). The police knew these people because of the video we posted on social media. The police also used electroshock on us. I was shocked 3 times, this is also why I fainted down. I felt a huge pain in my back. I still feel pain now in my muscles. I was shocked by two policemen at the same time, can you imagine?
My wife [who is 8 months pregnant] fainted down because of tear gas launched by the police in front of the UNHCR and had pain in her stomach. We don’t know if the baby is OK or not because when she fainted, she fell on her stomach.”

[E., talking about the day when the protest was evicted, 14.04.23]

“The UNHCR was and is still unwilling to change the situation. We believe it was their plan to evict and disperse the protest. Now for us the goal is to ensure the safety of those who are still imprisoned. And we need to come to a point to show that Tunisia is not safe. We need evacuation. The situation is not balanced. The UNHCR is denying that they are the one who called the police, but they are the ones to be held accountable for what has happened.”
[A., 13.04.23]

“We are dying here, all the world needs to know and help us. Our brothers in prisons are suffering, we are worried for them. We want evacuation to any country, we cannot return back to our country. […] We don’t want to live in fear. […] People here treat us as animals, the citizens of this country wish bad things to happen to the blacks. I am not saying it is everybody, there are also good people coming here to help us, because they care about us. […] If we stay here, we are going to die.”

[S., 18.04.23]