H.E. Amb. Minata Samate Cessouma
Commissioner for Health, Humanitarian Affairs and Social Development
African Union Commission
H.E. Prof. Fatou Sow Sarr
Commissioner for Human Development & Social Affairs
RE: Urgent action needed to save lives of African migrants expelled to Tunisian borders with Libya and Algeria, and to halt further expulsions and abuses
We write to request urgent action by the AU Commission, ECOWAS Commission, and member states to press the government of Tunisia to expand humanitarian access to the militarized Tunisia-Libya border zone, where more than 150 African migrants and asylum seekers remain trapped after expulsions from Tunisia in early July, and to swiftly relocate these people to safety. These include men, women (including pregnant women), and children of multiple African nationalities, suffering in life-threatening conditions in the desert without adequate food, water, or medical care.
We also urge you to call on the Tunisian government to ensure humanitarian aid and relocation to safety for other Africans expelled during the same period to desert areas along Tunisia’s border with Algeria and to halt all further arbitrary arrests, abuse, and collective expulsions of Black African foreigners, as these acts violate international law.
Human Rights Watch is an independent international organization that monitors and reports on violations of international human rights law in more than 100 countries. We recently published a report on July 19 and a press release on July 6 documenting serious abuses by Tunisian security forces against Black African migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers.
In those reports, among other human rights violations we highlighted Tunisian authorities’ abusive collective expulsions in July of up to 1,200 African migrants and asylum seekers including children – without due process – to remote desert areas along Tunisia’s borders with Libya and Algeria. The expelled people had both regular and irregular legal statuses in Tunisia and included nationals of at least 16 countries: at least 10 West African states (Senegal, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea Conakry, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Liberia, and Sierra Leone), and others including Chad, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Congo, Sudan, and Somalia.
People Expelled to the Tunisian-Libyan Border
An estimated 800 or more people have been expelled to the Tunisia-Libya border since July 2. Thus far, the only group the Tunisian government has allowed to access the migrants at the Tunisia-Libya border is the Tunisian Red Crescent (since July 8). This response has not adequately addressed peoples’ needs, and United Nations agencies and nongovernmental groups should also be granted access. The situation is dire: migrants have reported several deaths since the expulsions began on July 2. Human Rights Watch could not independently confirm these accounts. However, an Al Jazeera crew accessed the Tunisia-Libya border zone and captured footage on July 11 of the body of a Gambian man that migrants said was shot by Tunisian border guards.
On July 10 the Tunisian authorities finally relocated over 600 people they had expelled to the Libya border, taking them back into Tunisia to International Organization for Migration (IOM) shelters and other government facilities in Ben Guerdane, Medenine, and Tataouine. However, many of these people reportedly remain under guard by Tunisian authorities, who have since moved some to other locations, including a town near the Algerian border. We remain concerned about what will happen to these people.
Others expelled to the Libya border have not yet been evacuated. On July 11, Human Rights Watch spoke with Nigerians who said they were in a group of over 100 Africans of multiple nationalities still stuck at the Libyan border; they shared videos and their location. This was corroborated by Al Jazeera footage from the Libyan border on July 11 showing two still-stranded groups, totaling over 150 people. Migrants reported violence by Tunisian border guards and said both Tunisian and Libyan security forces had pushed them back, effectively trapping them in the buffer zone. On July 17 and 18, migrants communicated to UN agencies that over 150 people (100 men, 50 women, 7 children) were still stranded there, including 84 Nigerians, 30 Sierra Leoneans, 14 Ghanaians, 11 Malians, 6 Senegalese, 2 Central Africans, 2 Liberians, and 1 Chadian. Some migrants reported they had been bitten by scorpions and were ill. They said both Tunisian and Libyan security forces had provided small amounts of food and water, insufficient for everyone in the group, and said that many people were severely dehydrated.
On July 18, UN human rights experts issued a statement urging Tunisian authorities to “take urgent measures to stop collective expulsions and protect the human rights of all migrants” and to “expand humanitarian access to a dangerous area on the Tunisian-Libyan border where many, including pregnant women and children, have already been deported.”
People Expelled to the Tunisian-Algerian Border
Tunisian authorities also expelled several hundred people to desert areas along the Tunisia-Algeria border, dropping them in groups at several locations in Tunisia’s Tozeur, Gafsa, and Kasserine governorates. Many remain unaccounted for. On July 11, Agence France-Presse reported that the bodies of two migrants had been found in the desert near the Algerian border. On July 18, two Ivorian asylum seekers communicated to UN agencies that they had reached Tebessa, Algeria, after they were expelled from Tunisia in a group of 120 people (including 4 children and 6 pregnant women). They reported having insufficient food and water and facing physical violence by Algerian border guards. On July 20, a woman expelled at the Tunisia-Algeria border told Human Rights Watch she was able to enter Algeria via Tebessa with several other people. She said she walked several days in a group of 7 people, including a child, with limited access to food and water, in order to leave the border zone. She said Tunisian security forces had confiscated most of their phones and belongings and had threatened to shoot them.
Other Abuses by Tunisian Security Forces
Outside of the collective expulsions, Human Rights Watch’s July 19 report also documented other security force abuses against Black African foreigners on Tunisian territory (land and sea), including torture and other violence, arbitrary arrests and detention, forced evictions, theft of money and belongings, and dangerous actions during sea interceptions. Perpetrators of abuses included the police, military, and national guard, including the coast guard. The majority of the documented incidents occurred in 2023 after President Kais Saied gave a February 21 speech linking irregular migrants from sub-Saharan Africa with crime and what he described as a plot to “alter Tunisia’s demographic make-up.” The president’s speech, which UN experts have called racist, triggered a surge in hate speech, discrimination, and attacks against Black African foreigners in Tunisia.
AU, ECOWAS, and Member State Responses
We note that the African Union Commission Chairperson, H.E. Moussa Faki Mahamat, issued a statement on February 24 that “strongly condemn[ed]” President Saied’s speech, registered “the African Union’s deep shock and concern at the form and substance of the statement targeting fellow Africans,” and urged all countries to “treat all migrants with dignity” and “refrain from racialised hate speech.”
We also acknowledge the attention of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to Tunisia’s recent collective expulsions, with a press release by Commissioner Maya Sahli-Fadel on July 11 expressing deep concern “about the situation of sub-Saharan migrants deported to the Libyan desert.” The Commissioner condemned the “cruel and inhuman treatment” of migrants and called on Tunisian authorities to respect the rights of everyone, regardless of their immigration status, in accordance with the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The Commissioner also noted the international legal prohibition on racial discrimination.
In the name of African unity and solidarity, and in order to save the lives of people stranded at Tunisia’s borders with Libya and Algeria, Human Rights Watch calls on the AU Commission, the ECOWAS Commission, and member states to take all appropriate measures – including public statements and other diplomatic efforts – to condemn Tunisian security force abuses against Black African migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees and to urge the Tunisian government to immediately expand humanitarian access to African people it has expelled to its border areas and relocate them to safety.
Diplomatic delegations of African countries should also seek to locate and evacuate any of their nationals expelled to the Tunisia-Libya or Tunisia-Algeria borders who wish to voluntarily return to their countries of origin. Since the expulsions began on July 2, Human Rights Watch jointly with other NGOs contacted several African embassies in Tunisia – including those for Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, and Cameroon – but did not receive a response.
We would be grateful if you could share with us information on any additional statements made or other actions taken by the AU, ECOWAS, or member states in response to abuses by Tunisian authorities described above, notably the collective expulsions.
Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter.
Advocacy Director, Africa Division
Human Rights Watch
Researcher, Refugee and Migrant Rights Division
Human Rights Watch