HRW urges Tunisia to suspend expulsion of African migrants

Hundreds of migrants were rounded up from Sfax and driven to the militarised Tunisia-Libya border zone this week.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has urged Tunisia to stop its expulsion of sub-Saharan African migrants and for humanitarian services to be provided to those migrants currently languishing at the North African country’s border with Libya.

The international human rights group made the statement on Thursday, after hundreds of migrants were rounded up from the coastal city of Sfax and driven to Ben Guerdane, a militarised Tunisia-Libya border zone earlier this week.

“Not only is it unconscionable to abuse people and abandon them in the desert, but collective expulsions violate international law,” said Lauren Seibert, refugee and migrant rights researcher at HRW.

The expulsion occurred after days of violence in the port city where one Tunisian was killed. Locals have complained about the migrants’ behaviour, while migrants say they have been subjected to racist attacks.

The migrants expelled are from many African countries,  including Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Mali, Guinea, Chad, Sudan, and Senegal, and include 29 children and three pregnant women, HRW said.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Libya said they were able to provide some emergency medical assistance to migrants.

Dozens of other African migrants remain in Sfax, sleeping in the street near the Sidi Lakhmi mosque.

Thousands of undocumented migrants have travelled to Sfax in recent months, hoping to get to Europe on boats run by human traffickers.

The growing migration crisis has put Tunisia under pressure by Europe to stop migrants from leaving Sfax, the European Union luring the economic crisis-hit country with a prospective 1 billion euros ($1.1bn) aid package. However, President Kais Saied has said that Tunisia would not be a border guard for Europe.

In turn, a speech by Saied in February, where he spoke of the “hordes of irregular migrants from sub-Saharan Africa” who come to Tunisia, bringing with them “all the violence, crime, and unacceptable practices”, was widely decried as “racist” and has since fuelled violent attacks against many migrants and intensified racial tensions in the country.