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Dispatches: Illegal Travel Bans in Tunisia’s Airport

When she arrived at Tunisia’s airport on May 24, Rihab May was ready for her vacation. The 24-year-old’s bags were packed, she had a valid passport, a round-trip ticket, a hotel booking, and a notarized authorization to travel from her father.

That’s right: authorization from her father. This document is required for any Tunisian citizen under 35 to travel to certain countries. The government started requiring it for women in 2013 and then in 2015 for both sexes, saying it would help stem the flow of Tunisians joining jihadist causes in Syria, Iraq, and Libya.

As Rihab learned, however, airport police can arbitrarily turn back travelers even if they comply with this requirement, which has no legal basis under Tunisian law.

When Rihab produced her father’s authorization, the passport control officer asked her to step back and wait, she told me. She then heard him say to his colleague, “Women are becoming too emancipated nowadays.” An hour later, two police officers arrived. One asked her, “What do you do in life?” and, “Why do you have blond hair?” Then they told her she wasn’t going anywhere today. When Rihab asked why, one answered, “Go ask the minister of interior.”

Beyond the sexist tone of the officers, this incident is the latest in a pattern of police arbitrarily restricting travel. Human Rights Watch documented eight cases in early 2015 where passport authorities at Tunis airport refused to allow Tunisians to depart, some because they did not have a parental authorization, others on grounds they did not specify.

Requiring adults to obtain a father’s permission to travel has no legal basis in Tunisia. Both the country’s constitution and international standards enshrine the right to freedom of movement and non-discrimination. Police need a court order or, in some cases, a prosecutor’s order to stop people from traveling abroad.

Tunisia’s media flew into an uproar reporting on Rihab’s experiences, and airport authorities let her depart for Belgrade three days later. But unless the government reigns in airport officials at the airport, Rihab is unlikely to be the last Tunisian turned back at passport control for no good reason.

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