Dying of hunger and thirst in the desert after being expelled from Tunisia

At least 18 people have died near the Libyan border, after being deported from the country that has just signed a migration agreement with the EU. Humanitarian organizations have denounced the expulsions. At the moment, around 200 migrants are living along the Tunisia-Libya border in subhuman conditions.

A Libyan border agent dribbles water on an African migrant at the Libyan-Tunisian border, on July 30, 2023.
A Libyan border agent dribbles water on an African migrant at the Libyan-Tunisian border, on July 30, 2023.STR (EFE)

On July 16, the so-called “Team Europe” – represented by President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen and the prime ministers of the Netherlands (Mark Rutte), and Italy (Giorgia Meloni) – signed a collaborative agreement with Tunisia on the subject of migration management.

Meanwhile – as the signing was taking place – hundreds of migrants and refugees struggled to survive without food or water, in a strip of several miles of desert between the Libyan and Tunisian borders. They were deported by the Tunisian security forces in early July. Some 200 people still remain there in inhumane conditions, according to the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), the main foundation specializing in national migration issues.

“According to Libyan military sources, at least 18 people have already died there. It’s truly a tragedy, and a shame for Tunisia and for the European Union, which have remained silent,” says Romdhane Ben Amour – a FTDES investigator – in an interview with EL PAÍS.

The area is military territory and, therefore, entry is prohibited to civilians. The armies of both countries have only allowed the Red Crescent access, to provide help to migrants – including children and pregnant women – who are living out in the open in an area with extreme temperatures that sometimes reach 122°F during heat waves.

“We’ve been working for more than two weeks providing emergency aid – water, food and coverings to protect themselves from the sun – to migrants stranded on the Libyan-Tunisian border in harsh weather conditions,” says Taufik Shukry – the spokesman for the Libyan Red Crescent – in a statement. On social media, this entity reported that it had delivered 350 food rations, 6,000 liters of water and 350 boxes with personal hygiene kits to the stranded migrants.

This help comes too late for some 20 people, who perished as victims of starvation and the ravages of extreme temperatures. This was the case of Fati and her daughter, Marie, whose corpses were found embracing under the sun a couple of weeks ago, an image that circulated around the world. The NGO Refugees in Libya was able to identify them and track down Pato – the victims’ husband and father – who told their story.

The couple – she an Ivorian national and he a Cameroonian – met in a detention center in Libya in 2016. The following year, their little girl was born. Deported in the desert, they split up in search of food and got lost. He managed to cross the border, where he learned of the death of his loved ones.

The armies of both countries have only allowed the Red Crescent access, to provide help to migrants – including children and pregnant women – who are living out in the open in an area with extreme temperatures that sometimes reach 122°F during heat waves

“Security forces arrested all Black foreigners and put them on buses to Sfax (a Tunisian city). It didn’t matter if many were here legally, or if they were students, refugees recognized by UNHCR, or asylum-seekers,” explains a leader of the sub-Saharan community in Tunisia, who prefers to remain anonymous for security reasons. Many of the individuals suffered ill-treatment and humiliation, including beatings, insults, sexual assault, as well as the burning of their passports and identity documents. Likewise, their mobile phones were confiscated, so that they couldn’t tell anyone what was happening.

It’s estimated that, during the first week of the agreement being in effect, some 1,200 people were deported to the border between Tunisia and Libya, while 500 were sent to the border with Algeria, also in the desert. After these inhumane actions caused an international scandal, Tunisian authorities rescued some of them after a week. “The Tunisian Red Cross took about half of those on the Libyan border – and all of those on the Algerian border  – to public shelters. Now, they’re [kept incommunicado] in public centers; they’re prohibited from leaving. Every day, they’re offered the option of signing a ‘voluntary return’ to their countries of origin,” explains Ben Amour.

With access to the area sealed off and their mobile phones having been confiscated, it’s very difficult to access the testimonies of the deportees. One of the few exceptions is a harrowing video broadcast by Al Jazeera, which shows various people pleading for help. “We’re about to die. Please, please, help, help,” pleads a young woman, with tears in her eyes. “We don’t know why we are here. We are suffering, without food, without water. I ask the UN, please, come get us out of here, come help us. We are dying,” a man identified as George exclaims in English. On Tuesday, Farhan Haq – spokesman for UN Secretary General António Guterres – denounced the deaths in the desert and expressed the organization’s “deep concern.”

The tragedy of these hundreds of people is the last link in a chain of events triggered by a racist speech given by Tunisian President Kais Said this past February. Adapting an idea held by the most radical fringe of the Western far-right, known as the “great replacement theory,” Said said there was a “criminal plan” to change the “demographic makeup of Tunisia” and replace its Arab and Muslim population with “hordes” of Black sub-Saharan migrants.

“The president fully embraced ideas that were circulating in certain circles [and] on social media – he gave them legitimacy. The consequence was that these hate speeches jumped from the screens to real life,” Ben Amour laments. During the following days across Tunisia, there were dozens of attacks against people from sub-Saharan Africa: many were expelled from their jobs and their homes. One of the points of greatest tension was Sfax, which has the largest sub-Saharan migrant community in Tunisia. This coastal city – located about 200 miles south of Tunis – is the industrial capital of the country. There are dozens of factories that employ migrants.

According to Ben Amour and the anonymous sub-Saharan social leader, in Sfax, criminal groups took advantage of the context of social tolerance towards racist violence. They subsequently organized raids on the homes of migrants and stole their money. This led to numerous violent incidents. In one of these attacks, in early July, a Tunisian citizen was killed. It was in response to this death that the authorities decided, in the following days, to deport hundreds of people to the borders with Libya and Algeria.

“This isn’t a new practice, especially on the Algerian border. But never before [has the Tunisian government] expelled so many people in just a few days, in such a systematic way,” Ben Amour emphasizes. He assures EL PAÍS that the deaths of at least 20 people have been documented along the border with Algeria since February of this year. His institute – the FTDES – has long denounced these human rights violations, attributing them to the EU’s migration agreements and its indifference in the face of these abuses. The Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor has argued that the deportations should be treated as “murders,” with the NGO calling for an independent international investigation.

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