Hundreds of sub-Saharan migrants have been left stranded at Tunisia’s remote border with Libya, leading to accusations of human rights violations by rights groups. As the EU engages in negotiations with Tunisia to address migrant flows into Europe, Human Rights Watch reported that 500-700 migrants, expelled following clashes with Tunisian citizens in Sfax, were trapped in the desert without access to food, shelter, or medical assistance. Both Tunisian and Libyan soldiers were preventing their movement, and reports of beatings have emerged when they attempted to go in either direction.
Tensions between Tunisians and sub-Saharan Africans in Sfax have been escalating for months, with arbitrary crackdowns on individuals with black skin by the local police. Recent clashes in Sfax resulted in the deaths of a Tunisian and a man from Benin. Many attribute the crisis to President Kais Saied’s claims in February, alleging that migrants were part of a conspiracy to alter the country’s demographic makeup, which sparked racist violence against sub-Saharan Africans in Tunisia.
Talks between Brussels and Tunis are ongoing, aiming to provide over €1 billion in EU support to Tunisia’s struggling economy and address migration from its shores to Europe. The proposed package includes €105 million for border control and was announced during a visit by European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen. However, finalizing the details has taken longer than expected.
The European Commission has acknowledged the anti-migrant protests in Sfax and has called on the authorities to ease tensions. It also expressed readiness to support Tunisia’s structural reforms, including those related to migration. European officials have warned that an economic collapse in Tunisia could result in increased migrant crossings in the Mediterranean. Italy, where arrivals have surged tenfold since the beginning of the year, has been instrumental in lobbying the EU for support to Tunisia.
Human Rights Watch’s Lauren Seibert raised concerns about EU funding potentially contributing to human rights violations if it supports security forces that abuse migrants. She emphasized the need to assess the real impact on the ground. The Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Right, a think-tank, has also criticized the EU deal, describing it as an exploitation of Tunisia’s political, economic, and social fragility. The think-tank highlighted that the migrant group at the border includes asylum seekers, women, and children, and that severe human rights violations have accompanied the process.
According to Seibert, Tunisian forces have confiscated the migrants’ food and supplies before leaving them. Uniformed Libyan forces provided limited assistance in the form of water and biscuits to approximately 20 children among the stranded group. Seibert reported distressing conditions, with migrants resorting to drinking seawater and falling ill, emphasizing the urgent need for assistance.