Tunis police raid sees refugees abandoned near the border with Algeria | Refugees News

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Tunis, Tunisia – Teams of refuse workers are busy in the deserted alleyway outside the International Organization for Migration (IOM) offices in Tunis. A nearby park stands empty.

In both, large piles of refuse are the only evidence of the hundreds of sub-Saharan African refugees and migrants who sheltered here until recently.

In the early hours of Friday morning, police swept into both camps, plus a protest site outside the offices of the UNHCR a few miles distant, clearing them of the shelters erected there and bundling the men, women and children onto municipal buses to the Algerian border.

The Refugees in Libya organisation claims they were taken off the buses near the border town of Jendouba – whose governorate borders Algeria – where they were left without food or water to fend for themselves.

The raids in Tunis are the latest example of an increasingly hostile environment taking hold in Tunisia. One where irregular sub-Saharan African arrivals, their numbers swelling by the day, find themselves attacked by both security services and politicians, forced to shelter in open fields while increasingly vulnerable to kidnapping and ransom.

Who they are

There are currently tens of thousands of irregular sub-Saharan African arrivals sheltering in Tunisia, nearly all hoping to continue their months-long journeys on to Europe.

Total numbers are impossible to confirm. However, the IOM estimates that about 15,000 may be living in the fields near the coastal city of Sfax after police ejected them from the centre in September.

Some have returned to the outskirts of the city, squatting in the working-class districts close to the rail tracks. More shelter in the fields near Zarzis, close to the Libyan border, clustering around the UNHCR office in hopes of securing refugee accreditation and a degree of protection in a country that offers none.

Some 550 were estimated to have been living rough in Tunis at the time of Friday’s police raid. Outside the offices of the IOM, many families had sheltered in structures of timber and tarpaulin. Among them were a large number of children and newborn babies, including Freedom, a four-month-old boy born in Tunisia to a Nigerian mother, Gift.

“I named him that because I need freedom,” she had told Al Jazeera, “I need to know freedom. There is no freedom for us,” she says.

Gift had entered the country last summer through Libya, where a militia patrolling the desert had taken her prisoner, holding her for seven months before her family in Nigeria could raise her ransom.

Gift and Freedom’s location is currently unknown.

Crews clean up
Cleanup crews clearing the alleyway by the IOM office in Tunis on May 3, 2024 [Al Jazeera]

Unwanted

Conditions in the fields near Sfax are dire, 37-year-old Richard from Ghana said.

Violent police raids and surveillance have grown more frequent and disease has gradually taken hold in a community deprived of medical care. The fear of arrest and deportation to the desert borders with Libya and Algeria is ubiquitous.

“Conditions there are bad. Very, very bad,” Richard said.

He had returned from Sfax to the fragile security of the IOM camp in Tunis a week earlier.

“I am sick, you can see. My body hurts,” he said. “I have to go to hospital but they give you no assistance. In Sfax, it is very difficult.”

He gestured to his friend Solomon, 36, who was coughing: “My brother here is really sick. He’s been coughing for some time,” he said.

“I started to cough three days ago. All my body hurts. Lots of people at the camp had the same symptoms,” Solomon said.

On top of the spread of disease is the ongoing threat from the police. Camps around Sfax where the undocumented shelter offer no protection from police surveillance, which has taken to the skies recently.

“I saw the drones,” Solomon says. “I was at Kilometre 31. They were going up and down,” he says, waving his hand above his head.

A tear gas cannister fired at refugees and migrants in Al Amrah, 23-25 April Sfax. Photographed by Richard from Ghana
Tear gas canisters from Al Amrah, near Sfax, Tunisia 23-25 April 2024 [Courtesy of Richard]

Richard joins in, he had been at Kilometre 34, names given to the informal camps based on their distance from Sfax centre. He describes a raid last month where the refugees were able to film the police burning tents and firing tear gas.

“The police came and burned the tents,” Richard explains, showing the video of the raid on his phone.  “I don’t know why they did it,” he says.

But this is just one of what have become commonplace raids for those living in the fields around Sfax, shut off from the world by a police force that seeks to block access from NGOs and prying journalists.

Both Richard and Solomon subsequently told Al Jazeera that they were away from the Tunis camps at the time of the police raid.

Kidnapped

With much of the sub-Saharan African refugee community existing in an official vacuum, a trade in kidnapping has been growing since at least the end of last year.

In Tunis, huddled on a broken sofa that, like the shelters surrounding it, was subsequently swept up in the raid, three Sierra Leoneans spoke of having been held and tortured on arriving in Sfax from Algeria.

They were held prisoner by an unknown number of Francophones, their guess was Cameroonians, after being “sold” to them by the Tunisian smugglers they had already paid 600 euros ($644) to.

“They beat us with plastic pipes. One, he gets a bottle and burns it, so the plastic falls on us,” 29-year-old Hassan said.

His friend, 34-year-old Izzi from Freetown, took up the story: “They make us call our families. I phone my wife in Sierra Leone. I am supposed to be earning money for her and our three children. We all phone.

“We transfer the money. They leave us with nothing. They take our phones, everything.”

Accounts of kidnapping, torture and trafficking are rife among the sub-Saharan African refugee community. In March, the practice was called out, by a group of 27 international and national NGOs, including the regional office of Lawyers Without Borders, who said the prevalence of kidnapping was the outcome of official attitudes towards migration.

Determining how prevalent the trade is – like trying to count overall arrivals – when both victim and trafficker rely upon secrecy, is like trying to place one’s finger on liquid mercury.

“There have been escalating reports of such practices since the end of last year, primarily in Sfax, where migrants are kidnapped by other migrants, or in conjunction with Tunisian smugglers,” Romdhane Ben Amor, communications officer for the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, said.

“They are then held against their will in apartments or houses.”

Translation: What is currently happening in Sfax is shameful. The worst part is that the state and so-called politicians are all complicit. Remember that #Tunisia has more than 12,000 refugees, mainly in Italy, where they are treated with dignity.

The situation deteriorated since authorities expelled undocumented sub-Saharan refugees to the fields outside Sfax, Ben Amor continued.

In April, journalists for French newspaper Liberation reported on a police raid on a three-storey building in a working-class district of Sfax, where sub-Saharan African refugees and migrants were ordered onto the roof by their Black kidnappers and instructed to threaten to jump should the police approach.

Vilified

Encouraged by a government that analysts typically characterise as authoritarian operating in tandem with a largely pliant media, many within Tunisia are venting their frustrations over tanking living standards, shrinking freedoms and endemic unemployment in the Black refugee and migrant community.

In Sfax, local MP Fatma Mseddi has channelled much of that anger, petitioning to have irregular arrivals deported and pushing a law intended to hobble the international NGOs she blames for supporting them.

A suggestion from a Tunisian NGO to shelter some of the refugees and migrants in a hotel has already been attacked within the press with the organisation’s national credentials questioned.

On the ground, community Facebook groups focus that anger while ignoring from their own contribution to the overall migration numbers. 17,322 Tunisian nationals made the journey to Italy without paperwork last year.

However, with no long-term solution in sight, Tunisia continues to punish refugees and migrants for their presence.

How four-month-old Freedom and the other children of the Tunis encampments may be responsible for their homelessness and destitution is unknown.



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