The Observers

Tunisian officials abandon migrants in the desert at the Libyan border

Videos shared online show a busload of migrants being taken to the Tunisia-Libya border and stranded in the desert.
Videos shared online show a busload of migrants being taken to the Tunisia-Libya border and stranded in the desert. © Observers

Tunisian human rights organisations have been sharing footage of Tunisian officials transporting a group of migrants to the border with Libya on September 27 and abandoning them in the desert. The group, which was intercepted trying to reach Europe by boat, was made up of about a hundred men, women and children, including at least three pregnant women. We spoke to one man who described how the group was left stranded.

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Our Observer Eric (not his real name) was one of the migrants with the group. He told us what happened after they were arrested on the boat, as they were trying to reach Italy.

After they arrested us on the boats, they released the Tunisians and put the people from Sub-Saharan Africa in detention. Then, the next day, they made us get into buses, without telling us where we were going. The group included children as well as pregnant women and elderly women. After driving for five hours, they broke us into three groups and then loaded us into pickups bound for the desert.

He says the Tunisian National Guard officers took the group to the desert near the border with Libya and told them to walk toward the border. They threatened, hit and insulted many of the migrants who refused to go.

According to Zeineb Mrouki, from NGO Lawyers Without Borders in Tunisia, this is not an uncommon situation for sub-Saharan migrants in Tunisia:

We're seeing more and more expulsions of this kind. We're seeing them documented by amateur videos that are posted on social networks. We don't know why the Tunisian authorities are sending people to the Libyan border. It appears that they believe they entered Tunisia from Libya so they can send them back there – even when the people were intercepted at sea. 

Some Tunisian NGOs denounced the move, saying it violates the principle of non-refoulement in the Geneva Convention, which says that countries should not send potential refugees into places where they may be in danger.

Our team contacted representatives from the Tunisian National Guard, but they didn’t want to comment on this situation and suggested we contact the Coast Guard or the Ministry of the Interior. The ministry did not respond to our repeated requests for comment. 

Tunisian authorities have been arresting migrants caught attempting to reach Europe and driving them to the border since early September. Even so, Italy reported that more than 4,800 migrants arrived in the country, 20% more than the same period in 2020.