In Tunisia, repression is increasing on sub-Saharan migrants and the associations that support them

It was 2 a

In Tunisia, repression is increasing on sub-Saharan migrants and the associations that support them

It was 2 a.m. on Friday, May 3, when law enforcement officers appeared in front of the migrant camp, set up opposite the headquarters of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), in the neighborhood of banks of the lake in Tunis. “We were all in bed, sleeping. Suddenly, we had to flee,” recalls Simon, a 21-year-old Cameroonian exile who prefers to use an assumed name. He managed to escape the police. “But those who didn’t make it were arrested. We still have no news of some of them,” he said, still on the street.

There were hundreds of them, mainly from West African countries, sleeping outside while waiting for assistance from the IOM for a voluntary return to their country. “We just want to go home,” assures Simon, who submitted a request in December 2023 to be repatriated to Cameroon. We don't understand why they did that. We were calm, we didn't attack anyone, we didn't do anything wrong. »

Further on, at the end of the street, several hundred exiles – men, women and even children mostly from Sudan and war-torn East African countries – were settled in the alleys of a public garden while waiting to obtain international protection.

Collective expulsions

Others had pitched their tents a few hundred meters away, in front of the headquarters of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Dozens of exiled people, installed in the Youth Center since the closure of the Choucha camp in 2017, were also evicted, in the suburb of La Marsa.

In total, nearly 80 arrest warrants were issued against those arrested over the weekend and at least several hundred of them were expelled to the country's borders, according to several NGOs. This coordinated and large-scale evacuation follows other similar operations in the Sfax region last week.

On Monday, May 6, during a security council, President Kaïs Saïed recognized for the first time collective expulsions by the Tunisian authorities, specifying that “400 people” were sent back to “the eastern border,” in “continuous coordination” with neighboring countries.

“We are witnessing an all-out repression of black migrant populations who continue to suffer systematic abuse of their rights,” denounces Salsabil Chellali, director of the Human Rights Watch office in Tunis. She emphasizes that, in general, the arrests and expulsions carried out by the authorities are carried out "without any case-by-case assessment of the status" of the exiles, "outside any rule of law and legal framework", simply because "these people are identified as black and as coming from African countries.”

“Hordes of illegal migrants”

Since President Kaïs Saïed's speech in February 2023, during which he designated the "hordes of illegal migrants" as complicit in a plot aimed at modifying the country's Arab-Islamic identity, the Tunisian authorities have made a shift security in the management of sub-Saharan African migrants.

The repression against them has extended in recent days to civil society organizations. Saadia Mosbah, president of Mnemty, an association fighting against racial discrimination, was arrested on Monday May 6 on the basis of the law relating to the fight against terrorism and the repression of money laundering and placed in police custody .

A black Tunisian activist and figure in the anti-racist struggle in Tunisia, Ms. Mosbah had been very critical of the anti-migrant policies of President Kaïs Saïed for more than a year. Another member of the association was questioned as part of the investigation, but was left at large. Their offices were raided.

The organization Terre d’Asile Tunisie (TAT), the Tunisian section of France Terre d’Asile, also received a visit from police officers in its offices in Tunis and Sfax. Its former director, Sherifa Riahi, was interviewed and then placed in police custody on the basis of the same law used against Ms. Mosbah, a source told Le Monde on condition of anonymity. Four people were questioned, “without this leading to an arrest”.

The president and vice-president of the Tunisian Refugee Council (CTR) were also arrested and placed under arrest warrant following their police custody. They are accused of “criminal associations with the aim of helping people to access Tunisian territory”, according to a statement from the prosecution, while the CTR assists the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in the registration of asylum seekers, with the approval of the authorities in the absence of a law governing the right to asylum in Tunisia.

“Scare associations”

The president of the Tunisian Refugee Council (CTR) and one of his colleagues were also arrested. According to the private radio Mosaïque FM, they are accused of helping to accommodate irregular migrants, even though this organization assists the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in the registration of asylum seekers, with the approval of the authorities in the absence of a law governing the right to asylum in Tunisia.

“This is a new milestone reached in repression,” alarms Salsabil Chellali. The authorities want to scare associations that carry out actions to alleviate the suffering of migrants and asylum seekers and to put an end to any assistance they can receive in Tunisia. This only exacerbates the vulnerable conditions they are in. »

In his speech on Monday evening, Mr. Saïed castigated associations which “receive enormous sums of money from abroad”. “There is no place for associations that could replace the State,” he said, also describing the leaders of these associations as “traitors” and “agents”.

Mr. Saïed also repeated “to the heads of state” and “to the whole world”, as he has done many times, that “Tunisia is not a land to settle these people and that it ensures so that it is not also a crossing point for them towards the countries of the northern Mediterranean”.

While refusing to welcome migrants, the Tunisian authorities nevertheless continue to prevent them from reaching Europe with financial and logistical support from the European Union. Between January 1 and April 15, 21,270 migrants were intercepted at sea by the National Guard, compared to 13,903 over the same period in 2023, according to figures communicated by its spokesperson, Houssem Jebabli, to the agency Nova Press.