While European politicians were replicating deadly agreements with Tunisian leadership last July, African migrants in Tunisia were living what they described as "the worst nightmare” of their lives. Many of these people are still targeted in a country that is unsafe for them.
With the resuming of works of the EU parliament and upcoming discussions around the agreement, MSF is concerned about appalling testimonies collected on board of the Geo Barents, telling stories of growing discrimination, violent attacks and collective expulsions of sub-Saharan Africans in Tunisia, raising doubts about their safety, protection and access to services, including health services. EU Member States must oppose the implementation of the border management component of the Memorandum of Understanding with Tunisia. They must take a stance against the proliferation of agreements that offer no accountability or safeguards against human rights violation around forced migrations.
Achille still remembers the overwhelming feeling that something was wrong on a morning in February, when he took his usual bus to work in Tunisia. He could not help noticing that there were no other black Africans on the streets, in the bus, or anywhere around him. This and the presence of the police on the bus gave him a sense of strange alertness, which he could not understand at first.
“At some point, someone in the bus hits my phone on the floor and starts hitting me while the police, nearby, did nothing to stop him. They dragged me out of the bus and kept hitting me on the street and some stabbed me with a screwdriver,” Achille recalls those moments of fear.
Achille was one of the people rescued in the Central Mediterranean Sea between 15 and 16 July 2023, by the MSF search and rescue vessel, the Geo Barents. At that time, MSF teams conducted 11 consecutive rescue operations for an influx of boats in distress that had departed from Sfax, Tunisia. Once safe onboard the Geo Barents, survivors started telling MSF teams horrific accounts of the fear, torture, abuse and violence they experienced in Tunisia, which had dramatically escalated by the end of February.
Agreements made to the expense of human lives
During the 24 hours period when MSF teams completed multiple rescues, in which Achille and 420 others were brought onboard, European and Tunisian politicians were finalizing an agreement. On 16 July, the European Union (EU) and Tunisia signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on a new “strategic partnership” and a funding package of up to €1 billion for Tunisia, including €105 million for “border management, search and rescue, anti-smuggling and return”. The agreement does not provide any guarantees for the wellbeing and safety of migrants in Tunisia.
“The MoU replicates dangerous EU migration policies which are increasingly ‘incentivizing’ third countries to increase deterrence and containment of people attempting to reach Europe,” says Juan Matias Gil, MSF Search and Rescue representative. “Such an agreement will cover with impunity and systemize the violence against migrants in Tunisia and makes the EU complicit in their deaths and abuse. These irresponsible migration policies place the wellbeing and rights of people on the move last and trap them into cycles of violence, abuse, and despair.”
“Blacks had to go back"
“The night before I was attacked, the president called to the population through a public speech on TV and radio against black Africans. That’s when everything changed!” Achille says. Fatima*, a 32-year-old woman, adds: “Before the president spoke, Tunisia was already bad. When he spoke saying that the blacks had to go back, then everything got worse.”
On 21 February 2023, the Tunisian president, Kais Saied, made a statement incriminating sub-Saharan Africans in Tunisia. The president accused them of aiming to change the demographic composition of the country. The speech amplified existing racist sentiments against black migrants among a certain part of the population.
Following the speech, survivors reported increased violence and abuse by Tunisian security forces, arbitrary arrests, cases of theft of belongings, including in detention, in the streets, or at checkpoints, and collective expulsions to borders with Algeria and Libya, that were already ongoing prior to the speech but seemed to amplify. In addition, incidents of civilian population-organized attacks and violence in urban settings and raids, which included stoning, knife-attacks and racial slurs. Survivors told us about mass evictions of sub-Saharan tenants, racial discrimination and denial of access to goods and services.
They also told us about kidnapping, torture and extortion for ransoms even before the president’s speech. Achille said: “After I arrived in Tunisia in October 2022, unidentified armed men kidnapped me and took me to a construction site and beat me for 12 days. I was tortured with a baseball bat while both my hands and feet were tied up with a long rope. They shot videos to send to my family to ask for money to pay for my freedom.”
Raids, evictions and popular violence
“People were beating, chasing and assaulting us if we were found in the streets. We were told to leave our ‘black houses’. People started looting and throwing Molotov cocktails at our houses,” Achille adds. “Many were severely injured. We don’t know what happened to them.”
“One morning I got up and the homeowner came and told me: ‘The president has said, you Africans must go home. We cannot host Africans anymore’” said Fatima.
Survivors also reported harassment and humiliation, including racist slurs, people spitting at them, or holding their noses when they passed them on the streets. “The whole four months I spent there, people attacked and stole from us. We do not fight with them,” said Mamadu*, a 17-year-old boy. “People in Tunisia were telling us ‘We don’t need black people here’.”
Arbitrary arrests, torture and expulsions
“When I was in jail, the police stopped giving us bread and water. They said ‘no, the toilets are closed’,” reports Hakim*, a 26-year-old man. “After three days, they just put us is a car and left us in the streets. They took our phones and all our salaries. They took everything.”
While under police custody, survivors outlined several incidents of expulsion to bordering countries Libya and Algeria. “In Sfax they pick up the blacks, with papers or not, and send them to the borders with Algeria,” says Fatima. Another survivor reported how he and other people were sent off to the desert. “The Tunisian police do not want to see black people. They hate us. When they took us to Algeria, we walked for almost a week in the desert.”
Increasing numbers of migrants fleeing Tunisia
Since the beginning of 2023, the number of boats departing from Tunisia has increased. “Tunisia is not a safe place for the black race,” says Achille. “To all my black brothers I strongly discourage you from coming to Tunisia. It is not a safe place. There is a racism that is extreme.”
The rise in numbers of people, including Tunisian citizens and migrants, fleeing Tunisia has meant that it has overtaken Libya as the main departure point for Central Mediterranean crossings to Europe in 2023. It is estimated that in the first six months of 2023, 56% of the people arriving in Italy via the Central Mediterranean route embarked in Tunisia; more than double the number as compared to the same period in 2022. “It was never my intention to cross the sea. Never, never. For me, taking the sea was a huge risk,” adds Achille.
While MSF teams spoke only to a few of those who managed to flee and were rescued at sea, the lives and safety of many more is at stake, risked by violence, racist persecution, and a worsening social and political situation. Their well-being and rights have been forsaken by European migration policies, replicating deadly agreements, as the agreements with Türkiye and Libya, to externalize border controls and incentivize countries like Tunisia and Libya to carry out aggressive pushbacks and deterrents.
* Names of survivors were changed to protect people’s identities.