A video that has been widely shared on social media since it was first posted on Sunday, August 4, shows a group of Ivorian migrants who say that they were abandoned by the Tunisian authorities in a desert military zone not far from the Libyan border. Our Observer recorded phone conversations with the group, before their phones died. Worryingly, there has been no news from the 36 children, women, and men since Monday.
This video was recorded on August 4 and shows a group of Africans, one of whom films their experience and explains:
"[…] We were getting ready to celebrate Independence Day for our country, the Ivory Coast. [A group of Tunisians] came, they took us [areested] and they sent us to the desert. They brought us to the border. They know that Libya is a dangerous country.
Next, the video turns to two women, who explain to the camera the terrible situation that they find themselves in. Both are travelling with children and one of them is pregnant.
"We don’t have anything to eat […] Our children don’t have water to drink. Have pity on us.”
The video was shared on the Facebook page of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), an NGO that raises awareness about issues around migration in Tunisia.
According to the UN migration agency the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the group was made up of 36 people of Ivorian nationality, including 11 women (one of whom was pregnant) and four children. IOM criticised Tunisian officials for having failed to follow the procedure for arresting undocumented migrants:
The IOM says if the officials had followed proper procedure, they would have referred the migrants to the Tunisian Red Cross, which is supported by the IOM. Staff there would have assessed their needs and provided any medical and humanitarian attention necessary. Migrants seeking protection under international law should have been referred to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
"Please, do something quickly. The children… can’t take it anymore..."
Yasmine Accardo is an Italian activist who works for a campaign for migrant rights called Lasciateci Entrare ("Let us enter"). She was in southern Tunisia, near the former refugee camp in Ras Jedir, when she managed to speak to one of the migrants on the phone several times:
They told me that they were taken to a police station in Medenine, the major town in southeastern Tunisian, where they were forced to sign documents in Arabic, with no translation. One of them went to get sea water when they finished the water they had.
I spoke to someone in the Tunisian National Guard and they said that the group had been given bread and milk on Monday. But I haven’t had any news since.
Accardo recorded one of her conversations with a member of the deserted group. He described the location where they were stranded in the hopes that someone could come and find them. He explained that they were "very far from Sfax", somewhere "near the military border."
He ended the conversation with a call for help: "Please, do something quickly. The children… can’t take it anymore..."
Arrest and deportation
Why did this group of Ivorian migrants end up on the border between Libya and Tunisia after they were arrested on August 3? Two separate statements-- one from the Tunisian Ministry of the Interior and the other from the Tunisian Ministry of Defense-- reported arrests of undocumented migrants on Saturday. The statement from the Ministry of the Interior reported that 70 people “of different nationalities” were arrested in Sfax (in southern Tunisia) while they were preparing an illegal border crossing.
The report from the Ministry of Defense, however, stated that 53 people had been arrested. According to the report, the group was made up of 20 Sudanese nationals and 33 Ivorians without identifying documents. They were arrested while trying to cross the Tunisian border undetected. They were then sent back to Libya and told to pass through regulated crossing points.
Khaled Hayyouni, the spokesperson for the MInistry of the Interior, was interviewed on the Tunisian radio station Express FM, where he said that the group of people described in that document were not those who would end up stranded in the desert. He also expressed doubts about the authenticity of the video: "Anyone can get together a group and film them and say that they had been abandoned in the middle of nowhere.”
"This isn’t how migrants should be treated"
But Romdhane Ben Omar, who is in charge of communications for FTDES (the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, the group that shared the video on Facebook), was in contact with one of the men who appears in the video. Before their phones went dead, the group told Ben Omar that they had been arrested in Sfax on Saturday while they were making preparations to celebrate Ivorian Independence Day (August 7).
They said they had been taken to Medenine by bus then brought to the border in the middle of the desert. One of the migrants even sent his geolocation, confirming where he was at the time the message was sent.
It turns out that the migrants were dropped off in a military zone, which means that there was almost no way for most organisations to intervene in the situation.
When they sent their coordinates, the migrants were near Ras Jedir, which is on the border between Tunisia and Libya (check out their location on Google Maps).
Ben Omar says that it isn’t about whether the migrants should have been arrested or not.
It doesn’t matter if they aren’t telling the truth-- if, [instead of making preparations of Ivorian Independence Day] they were getting ready to cross the border illegally.
No matter which way you look at it, this isn’t how you should treat migrants. The procedure was not upheld.
Moreover, the Minister of the Interior has stated that the migrants stranded in the desert were not the group arrested in Sfax. However, they wouldn’t tell us what happened to the 70 people arrested in Sfax. Usually, the smugglers are arrested and prosecuted. The immigrants, in the meantime, are handed over to the Red Cross (CICR). However, the CICR says that they had not yet been contacted about this case.
The France 24 Observers team spoke with Lorena Lando, who heads up the Tunisian branch of the IOM said that a group of migrants had been found in that location. She said that the IOM had asked Tunisian authorities if they could move the migrants out of the military zone so that they could help them and was still waiting for a response. .
In the meantime, the Tunisian authorities have not said anything else about this case. As of yet, no organisations have been able to enter the military zone to help the migrants.
Article written by Sarra Grira (@SarraGrira).