Tunisia: Hundreds of migrants, including pregnant women, deported to Libyan desert

·6-min read

Tunisian human rights organisations have been sharing footage of Tunisian officials transporting a group of migrants to the border with Libya on September 27 and abandoning them in the desert. The group, which was intercepted trying to reach Europe by boat, was made up of about a hundred men, women and children, including at least three pregnant women. We spoke to one man who described how the group was left stranded.

At least nine videos of the incident show a harrowing sequence of events: Tunisian officials arresting a group of migrants on September 26 and then, the next day, deporting them and abandoning them in the desert at the Libyan border.

The Tunisian Coast Guard intercepted the group, made up of migrants of sub-Saharan African origin as well as Tunisians, which was attempting to reach Italy by boat on the night of September 26. While the Tunisian nationals were released, many of the people from sub-Saharan Africa were forcibly deported to Libya and left stranded in the desert.

A video filmed by a passenger shows men, women and young children in a bus heading for the Libyan border.

Another video shows a dozen people who say they are “in the desert” on the border between Libya and Tunisia and that they don’t have any help. They also say that they were mistreated by authorities.

In a third video, a man films a woman who he says is “eight months pregnant, who hasn’t eaten for several days and who is weak.”

'When we said we wanted to stay in Tunisia, the National Guard threatened, insulted and hit us'

Eric (not his real name) was one of the people who was intercepted during his attempt to reach Italy by boat on the night of September 26. Tunisian officials then deported him to the border with Libya.

After they arrested us on the boats, they released the Tunisians and put the people from Sub-Saharan Africa in detention. Then, the next day, they made us get into buses, without telling us where we were going. The group included children as well as pregnant women and elderly women. After driving for five hours, they broke us into three groups and then loaded us into pickups bound for the desert.

We tried to show them our passports but the members of the National Guard who accompanied us heard nothing of it. They said that our countries didn’t have immigration agreements with Tunisia.

We were abandoned in a zone that stretches for about 20 km along the border between Libya and Tunisia. The officials showed us a path and told us to 'follow the road down there' towards Libya. When several people spoke up and said that they wanted to stay in Tunisia, the National Guard threatened us, insulted us and hit us. Some people did start heading down the road, but others, like me, refused to go.

I was with a woman who was nine months pregnant. She was very, very thirsty and complained that she was getting pains in her stomach.

Our Observer said that the pregnant woman actually gave birth in the desert after a hospital refused to admit her.

However, our team spoke to representatives from the International Organization for Migration, who gave a different version of events. They claimed that the woman had been rescued and gave birth at Ben Guerdane Hospital. They added that she was provided with food and other assistance.

Eric, for his part, managed to get back to Tunisia.

We were finally able to return to Sfax, Tunisia by bus. I’ve been trying to make a living here by doing odd jobs. When I was in the desert, National Guardsmen threatened to kill us. But, quite frankly, when I think back on that, I’d prefer death than to be stranded in the desert.

At least two people got back to Sfax after being abandoned in the desert, according to activists in the region. They say they haven’t heard from most of the migrants, probably because their “cell phones are out of charge.”

'These deportations are, unfortunately, commonplace and are done in secret'

Eight different Tunisian NGOs released a joint statement on October 3, confirming the events recounted by our eyewitness. They said they were alarmed by the way that Tunisian authorities had treated the group, which they said included at least three pregnant women.

The statement reads:

[These people] are reportedly being held in a private home in Zouara, not far from the border. The kidnappers have demanded around $500 per person to liberate them. Libyan authorities reportedly arrested another group of migrants, who were initially trapped in Ras Jedir. [...] The behavior of the Tunisian authorities violates the conditions of the 1951 Geneva Convention on the rights of refugees, which Tunisia signed in 1957.

Our team contacted Romdhane Ben Amor, who is the communications officer at the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, one of the organisations that signed the joint statement:

These deportations are, unfortunately, common and carried out in secret. In general, the authorities confiscate the cell phones of the people who they are bringing to the border so that no one can take photos or videos.

But, in this case, the migrants managed to hold on to their phones and film the entire process, including the bus journey, their time at a detention centre in the Medinine region and also what happened once they were dropped off in the desert [Editor’s note: In August 2019, 36 migrants from the Ivory Coast managed to capture footage when they were similarly deported to the Libyan border by Tunisian officials and left without any kind of assistance].

The authorities do this to uphold the European idea of the fight against immigration by intercepting as many boats as possible. In August, an estimated 5,582 migrants were intercepted mid-journey. Roughly 30% were from sub-Saharan Africa.

The problem is that there is basically no room left in the immigration detention centres in Tunisia and there is no coordination in terms of how migrants are handled here. Because the authorities aren’t managing the situation well, it is tense and there are many clashes between the local population and migrants in the Sfax region. So these days, the governors are making the decision to dump migrants at the border.

'We are sending them to their death'

Why are migrants being sent to Libya? Because of the assumption that they likely entered Tunisia by crossing the border from Libya. However, in general, this decision is made without any kind of verification of how they actually got here.

So we send people to a country [Libya], which has no resources or structures to support migrants [Editor’s note: Libya doesn’t have any law upholding the right to asylum and there are frequent reports of migrants being tortured or harmed there]. Clearly, we are sending them to their death.

Our team contacted representatives from the Tunisian National Guard, but they didn’t want to comment on this situation and suggested we contact the Coast Guard or the Ministry of the Interior. The ministry did not respond to our repeated requests for comment.

Tunisian authorities have been arresting migrants caught attempting to reach Europe and driving them to the border since early September. Even so, Italy reported that more than 4,800 migrants arrived in the country, 20% more than the same period in 2020.

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