Sub-Saharan migrants in Sfax, July 5, 2023. IMED HADDAD / AFP
“We are on a beach in the middle of the desert. » On Wednesday July 5 around 10 a.m., Ismaël, a young Ivorian living in Tunisia since 2019, has just sent to the Monde its exact location, thanks to the instant messaging application WhatsApp. The marker placed on the map makes the junction between Tunisia, on the left, Libya, on the right, and opposite, the Mediterranean Sea. The previous night, Ishmael and dozens of other sub-Saharan African nationals were forcibly transferred from the port city of Sfax (center-east) to this no man’s land, a buffer zone located near the Ras border post. Jdir, some 350 kilometers from the country’s second city.
Read also: Tunisia: surge of hatred in Sfax against sub-Saharans
In a video sent to Monde around 5:30 p.m. by Isaac, a Guinean national also displaced during the night from Tuesday to Wednesday, several dozen people – even a few hundred according to three witnesses on site – are still gathered on this beach, including women, children and infants . “We drink sea water, we haven’t eaten anything since yesterday”warns one of the women, her baby in her arms, under the sun.
Soldiers and agents of the national guard deny these forced transfers. “If the migrants are there, it means they must come from Libya”, assures one of them, present in the border area. The authorities, too, do not recognize these roundups of migrants. Only one MP, Moez Barkallah, mentioned these operations. In a statement to the Tunisian news agency, TAP, he was pleased that more than a thousand sub-Saharan migrants had been expelled from Eid-el-Kébir to the border regions of Libya and Algeria. Countries which, according to him, sponsor these operations.
Violent clashes in Sfax
The testimonies of these migrants are more and more numerous. According to Ismaël and his companions, the police came to look for them in their neighborhood of Sfax and made them board their vehicles, to the cheers of some residents, promising to put them ” safe ” in the capital, Tunis. But, instead of going north, they drove south and into the desert.
This operation follows days of extreme tension following the death of a Tunisian, Monday, July 3, killed in a brawl with sub-Saharan migrants, according to the spokesperson for the Sfax prosecution. Three men, of Cameroonian nationality, according to the authorities, were arrested. In the aftermath, certain districts of Sfax were the scene of violent clashes. Tunisian residents have come together to attack the migrants and dislodge them. “We don’t want them in our house anymore, we’ll take care of them ourselvesassures one of them, shirtless, his t-shirt on his head to hide his face, in a video shared on Facebook. Everyone get out, we’re going back to our homes. »
Read also: Tunisia: in the port city of Sfax, the wounded hope of sub-Saharan migrants
In a statement on Tuesday, Tunisian President Kaïs Saïed said his country refuses to be “a transit or reception area for arrivals from several African countries”. For the European Union, which wants to get Tunisia to prevent departures from the Mediterranean, he added that his country “protects only its own borders”.
Mistrust has been setting in for months in the port city, where more and more migrants are waiting to board a boat for Europe. At the end of February 2023, while a campaign against sub-Saharan migrants launched by the Tunisian Nationalist Party was widely broadcast on social networks and in the media, the hatred was exacerbated after the speech of Kaïs Saïed accusing “hordes of illegal immigrants” to be a source of “violence, crimes and unacceptable acts”.
Go to Europe
In the weeks that followed, human rights organizations documented dozens of assaults, expulsions and dismissals of migrants. The Tunisian government has defended itself from all ” racism “evoking “an orchestrated campaign from a well-known source”.
Already difficult, the living conditions of Ishmael, the young Ivorian, further deteriorated. Demonstrations against migrants in Sfax have multiplied, as well as accusations of crimes and violence, taken up again by the Head of State. Barely 30 years old, Ishmael only had one thing in mind: to go to Europe. He tried to do it for the first time at the end of winter, but his adventure failed after his boat was intercepted by the maritime guard. He was then released in Sfax, where he thought he was keeping a low profile, waiting for better days.
Read also: Tunisian President Kaïs Saïed opposes the new European Union migration pact
Since news of the expulsions of migrants circulated on Wednesday, dozens of other sub-Saharans have gathered at train stations and bus stations to flee Sfax. The same evening, the tension went down a notch in the streets of the city. In a small park in the city center, near a mosque, dozens of migrants are gathered, women are sleeping, a few are talking, two are injured in the head.
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Their discussions are punctuated by police sirens or the sound of Tunisian bikers who seem to be making rounds. “The police are there to protect us”, reassures Abdallah, even if he fears being attacked at any time. Expelled from their homes, prevented from crossing the sea to Europe, they are waiting to be able to flee the city or find living conditions “acceptable”.
From the south of the country, as the sun is about to set, Ishmael calls back, frightened. “A lot of soldiers have arrived near where we are, we don’t know what they are going to do to us”he says.