In Tunisia, the resentment of migrants against UN agencies

Nothing remains of the sit-in set up on March 21 in front of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Tunis

In Tunisia, the resentment of migrants against UN agencies

Nothing remains of the sit-in set up on March 21 in front of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Tunis. On Tuesday April 11, the occupants, mostly asylum seekers and refugees who demanded their "evacuation" to a safer country than Tunisia, were expelled manu militari by the security forces. Mattresses and blankets were taken away by road officials. A "hyperviolent" operation, according to Alia*, a Nigerian still in shock: "They took everything, all our belongings, even my phone. They also seized an envelope containing the money that my family had sent to me from my country. »

The group of several dozen people – women, men and sometimes very young children – was made up of Sudanese, South Sudanese and Eritrean nationals, among others. They fled their countries due to conflicts and therefore could not appeal to their embassies to be repatriated, as they face serious threats.

Alia, her husband and the others moved in front of the headquarters of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), located a few hundred meters from the UNHCR. In this pedestrian alley, nearly 200 people have been camping on the ground, in precarious conditions, since President Kaïs Saïed's speech on the "hordes of illegal migrants" on February 21 triggered a wave of violence, unprecedented arrests and deportations of black people.

The exiles are calling for humanitarian aid from international organisations. "We didn't have much, but now we have nothing left," Alia laments. The Berges du Lac business district, home to diplomatic representations and international organizations – including the two UN agencies – has become a vast theater of misfortune.

The Tunisian authorities accuse the group which participated in the sit-in of having attempted to enter "by breaking and entering" the headquarters of the UNHCR and of having caused "significant damage", details a press release from the Ministry of the Interior. They also specify that the intervention was carried out at the request of the UN agency. "We denounce the recent incidents [caused] by a small group of protesters and urge everyone to engage with us in finding meaningful and peaceful solutions," said Monica Noro, the agency's representative in Tunis. , in a statement on April 11.

Two people to study more than 6,000 files

About 80 people were arrested during this operation, among whom 32 will have to appear in the coming days before the judge, according to the NGO Avocats sans frontières (ASF). “In a country where there is no reception infrastructure, no right to asylum, no access to fundamental rights, the UNHCR had to be an institution of protection. Unfortunately, he has become the enemy of the people he is supposed to protect,” said Zeineb Mrouki of ASF.

In the absence of an asylum law, it is the UN agency that is supposed to deal with the processing of requests and the granting of refugee status. Since 2019, with the increase in the number of requests, waiting times can reach several years. In November 2022, a senior agency official said that only two people were responsible for studying more than 6,000 files.

On April 16, 2022, a group of around 100 refugees and asylum seekers demonstrated in front of the UNHCR headquarters after occupying the premises of the UN agency in Zarzis following their expulsion from a reception center in the neighboring town of Medenine (south). Already at the time, they demanded their "evacuation", believing that their rights were not respected and their safety compromised.

This "evacuation" program does exist, but it is very selective: only 76 people were able to benefit from it in 2021 from Tunisia. "The decision on resettlement is made by the resettlement countries," the agency's website states. Our source at the UNHCR explained in November that this program is only accessible to the most vulnerable profiles, repeating in passing that Tunisia is considered by the United Nations as a "safe country for asylum".

Only, "the president's speech showed us that there is a problem of racism and hate speech against black people", believes Zeineb Mrouki: "It is clear that Tunisia is not a safe country for refugees. , asylum seekers and migrants. UNHCR must reflect on solutions to this situation. As for the IOM, underlines the head of ASF, "since February 21, it has become a voluntary repatriation agency".