Human Rights Watch (HRW) has stated in a report published on Thursday that Tunisian security forces have collectively expelled at least hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers from sub-Saharan African countries, including children and pregnant women, starting from July 2, 2023, towards a remote militarized buffer zone on the Tunisian-Libyan border. The expelled groups, some of whom were claimed to have regular legal status in Tunisia, were expelled without following due process, according to the HRW, and many reported being subjected to violence by the Tunisian authorities during arrest or expulsion.
“The Tunisian government should halt collective expulsions and urgently enable humanitarian access to the African migrants and asylum seekers already expelled to a dangerous area at the Tunisia-Libya border, with little food and no medical assistance” said Lauren Seibert, refugee and migrant rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Not only is it unconscionable to abuse people and abandon them in the desert, but collective expulsions violate international law.” she added.
Between July 2nd and 6th, HRW interviewed over the phone a number of those who had been expelled to the border area. The interviewees estimated that the Tunisian authorities had expelled between 500 and 700 people in at least four different groups since the beginning of the month, whilst reports published a few days later by Aljazeera International state the numbers may reach 1200 displaced persons at the Tunisian Libyan borders.
HRW indicated that the expelled persons were of many African nationalities, including Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Mali, Guinea, Chad, Sudan, Senegal and others, and among them were no less than 29 children and three pregnant women, according to the interviewees. Also, at least six of those stranded are asylum seekers registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in addition to at least two adults with consular cards identifying them as students in Tunisia.
Aljazeera’s report mentioned that the Tunisian authorities had moved the detainees to Medinine at one point, which is a city on the main route to Libya, while HRW cited one of the interviewees saying that the victims had been arrested in raids carried out by the Tunisian police, the National Guard, or the Tunisian army in the coastal city of Sfax, southeast of the capital Tunis. They were later transported by the National Guard and the army 300 kilometers to the border town of Ben Guerdane, and then to the actual Libyan border, where they became effectively trapped in what they described as a buffer zone through which they could neither enter Libya nor return to Tunisia.
HRW also reported allegations from those interviewed that several people died or were killed in the border area between 2 and 5 July, by the Tunisian army and the Tunisian National Guard, by being shot or by severe beatings.
They also claimed that Libyan men with machetes or other weapons robbed some individuals and raped a number of women, either in the buffer zone or after some of the stranded managed to cross into Libya in search of food. HRW has indicated that it has not been able to independently confirm these accounts, as no non-governmental groups had yet been able to access the area when the report was published.
One of the stranded persons with whom HRW spoke to was a 29-year-old Ivorian man who clarified that the detainees had entered Tunisia at various times, some regularly and some irregularly, but none he knew had passed through Libya.
He added that the Tunisian security forces confiscated their food and destroyed their phones before leaving them at the border. He said that two armed men from Libya wearing uniforms approached them later and ordered them to return to Tunisia, whilst the Tunisian military assaulted several men who attempted to return to Tunisia.
The organization reported that at least until the 5th of July, no humanitarian aid from the Tunisian side had reached the stranded group, and although the witness interviewed mentioned that some uniformed Libyan men arrived that evening to provide water and biscuits for the children, he stated that the next day ” The [same] Libyans … started to shoot in the air, burn things, chase us.… The Libyans told us to leave the territory and go toward the Tunisian side. They started to take out their guns to threaten us.”
It clarified in its report that it had contacted representatives of the Tunisian Ministries of Interior, Defense and Foreign Affairs by phone on July 6, but was unable to obtain any information. The Tunisian Interior ministry had at an earlier time claimed communications at the highest levels with the Libyan counterpart had been made regarding collaboration efforts to address irregular migration and cross border trafficking.
In the report, HRW indicated that Tunisia is party to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which prohibits collective expulsions, as well as the UN and African Refugee Conventions, the Convention Against Torture, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which prohibit refoulement – forced returns or expulsions to countries where people could face torture, threats to their lives or freedom, or other serious harm. All countries should suspend expulsions or forced returns to Libya, given the serious harm people may face there.
The humanitarian watchdog further added that the Tunisian government should respect international law and conduct individual legal status assessments in accordance with due process before deporting anyone, Human Rights Watch said. The government should also investigate and hold to account security forces implicated in abuses.
Moreover, it also stressed that diplomatic delegations of African countries should seek to locate and evacuate any of their nationals expelled to the Tunisia-Libya border who wish to voluntarily return to their countries of origin, while the African Union Commission should condemn the abusive expulsions and press Tunisia to provide immediate assistance to affected Africans.
“African migrants and asylum seekers, including children, are desperate to get out of the dangerous border zone and find food, medical care, and safety .. There is no time to waste.” concludes HRW researcher Seibert.
Sources: Human Rights Watch + Aljazeera International + Libya Alahrar