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Tunisia: African Migrants Intercepted at Sea, Expelled

Apparent Policy Shift Endangers Migrants, Asylum Seekers, Children

Black African migrants and asylum seekers walk in the desert near the Tunisia-Algeria border between July 5 and 7, 2023 after collective expulsion or forcible transfer there from Sfax, Tunisia, by Tunisian security forces. © 2023 Private

(Tunis) – The Tunisian National Guard collectively expelled over 100 migrants from multiple African countries to the border with Algeria between September 18 and 20, 2023, Human Rights Watch said today. Those expelled, which included children and possibly asylum seekers, had been intercepted at sea and returned to Tunisia by the Coast Guard, part of the National Guard.

These operations may signal a dangerous shift in Tunisian policy, as authorities had previously usually released intercepted migrants in Tunisia after disembarkation. The EU signed with Tunisia on July 16 a memorandum of understanding to increase funding to the Tunisian security forces, including the Coast Guard, to stem irregular sea migration to Europe.

“Only two months after the last inhumane mass expulsions of Black African migrants and asylum seekers to the desert, Tunisian security forces have again exposed people to danger by abandoning them in remote border areas, without food or water,” said Salsabil Chellali, Tunisia director at Human Rights Watch. “The African Union and governments of the people affected should publicly condemn Tunisia's abuse of fellow Africans, and the European Union should halt all funding to authorities responsible for abuse.”

Some migrants also said that National Guard agents beat them and stole their belongings, including phones, money, and passports.

On September 22, the European Commission announced that it would imminently provide €67 million to Tunisia to manage migration, without any clear benchmarks to ensure that Tunisian authorities protect the rights of migrants and asylum seekers. It is unclear how Tunisian President Kais Saied’s public rejection of the funding on October 2 will affect the deal.

Between September 20 and October 3, Human Rights Watch interviewed a 38-year-old Cameroonian man, a 17-year-old Guinean boy, and an 18-year-old and two 16-year-old boys from Senegal. All had been irregularly staying in Tunisia. The five said that they were among a large group of people of various African nationalities bused to the Algerian border, directly after being intercepted at sea.

These latest expulsions of migrants to remote border regions follow security forces’ collective expulsions in July to the Libyan and Algerian borders of over 1,300 migrants and asylum seekers, including children. They remained without adequate food and water. According to Libyan authorities, at least 27 people died at the border.

The Guinean boy and three Senegalese people interviewed said they were intercepted at sea by the Tunisian Coast Guard on September 17, hours after their boat left the coast near Sfax, heading toward Italy. They said their boat carried about 40 passengers, including 15 women and infants. One of the children interviewed said the Coast Guard created waves around their boat to force them to stop, then took them and intercepted migrants from other boats back to shore in Sfax.

Those interviewed said that once they disembarked, security force members asked for everyone’s documents and appeared to register the information of some of those who carried identification. However, one of the 16-year-olds said officers tore up his passport.

They said that the National Guard held about 80 people for several hours on September 17, with little water and no food or medical screenings, and confiscated all phones and passports, except for those that some people managed to hide. The officers removed SIM and memory cards and checked that people had not filmed the interception, and kept some phones and passports, two interviewees said. The 18-year-old Senegalese said that an officer slapped him and one of his friends who they accused of filming the interception. He also said that when he got his phone back, it had been reset and wiped of data.

On the evening of September 17, the National Guard loaded the group onto buses and drove them for 6 hours to somewhere near the city of Le Kef, about 40 kilometers from the Algerian border. There, officers divided them into groups of about 10, loaded them onto pickup trucks, and drove toward a mountainous area. The four interviewees, who were on the same truck, said that another truck with armed agents escorted their truck. The interviewees said road signs indicated they were still in the Le Kef region, which Tunisian nationals they met near the border confirmed to them.

The officers dropped their group in the mountains near the Tunisia-Algeria border, they said. The Guinean boy said that one officer had threatened, “If you return again [to Tunisia], we will kill you.” One of the Senegalese children said an officer had pointed his gun at the group.

The four managed to leave the border area and returned to Tunisia’s coastal cities a few days later.

Separately, the Cameroonian left Sfax by boat with his wife and 5-year-old son in the evening of September 18. The Coast Guard intercepted their boat, carrying about 45 people including 3 pregnant women and the child, on the morning of September 19. The Cameroonian said that when his group refused to stop, the Coast Guard drove in circles around them, creating waves that destabilized their boat, and fired teargas toward them, causing panic. The passengers cut their engine and were then boarded onto the Coast Guard vessel, he said.

The Coast Guard returned them to Sfax, where they joined other people who had been intercepted. The Cameroonian said that security force members beat everyone in his group after they disembarked – sometimes using truncheons – “because we didn’t cooperate and stop at sea,” the man said the officers had told them.

Officers confiscated their phones, erasing and resetting some and never returning others, and took money and passports, he said. As he had managed to hide his phone, he shared with Human Rights Watch photos and videos, as well as records of his tracked GPS location from the coast to the border.

© 2023 Human Rights Watch

On the evening of September 19, the Cameroonian man was among a group of, by his estimate, about 300 people who the National Guard drove in four buses to different destinations. The man said the only food passengers in his bus received was a piece of bread during the eight-hour journey. When they reached a National Guard station in the Le Kef region, officers transferred the people on his bus onto pickup trucks and drove them to a location near the Algeria border.

The man and his family were among fifty people in three pickups who were dropped at the same location, he said. He could not account for what happened to the others. National Guard officers pointed guns at them and ordered them to cross the Algerian border, he said. The group tried to cross but Algerian military officers fired warning shots. The next day, the Tunisian National Guard again pushed them back toward the border.

The group was eventually able to leave the area. On September 24, however, the Tunisian National Guard near Le Kef chased them, which caused the group to scatter. The Cameroonian said that he and his son were among a group that reached Sfax by walking for nine days. His wife reached Sfax on October 6, he said.

It is not clear whether the Tunisian authorities continue to carry out expulsions after interceptions as of October.

In transferring migrants or asylum seekers to the border and pushing them toward Algeria, Tunisian authorities attempted collective expulsions, which are prohibited by the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Authorities violated due process rights by failing to allow people to challenge their expulsion.

Authorities also disregarded their obligations to protect children. As a party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Tunisia is obliged to respect children’s rights to life and to seek asylum, freedom from discrimination, and to act in their best interests; including by implementing age determination procedures and family tracing, providing appropriate guardians, care, and legal assistance to unaccompanied migrant children.

The European Commission should suspend all funding for migration control purposes to the Tunisian National Guard and Navy pledged under the July agreement, Human Rights Watch said. The Commission should carry out a priori human rights impact assessments and set clear benchmarks to be met by Tunisian authorities before committing any migration management support.


10/10/2023: This news release has been updated to reflect that the Tunisian National Guard expelled migrants between September 18 and 20. 

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