Migrants from sub-Saharan Africa have spoken of their horror at being forcibly returned to remote desert regions where some have died of thirst as they attempt to cross the border into Tunisia.
As the European Union prepares to send money to Tunisia under a €1bn (£870m) migration deal, human rights groups are urging Brussels to take a tougher line on allegations that Tunisian authorities have been pushing people back to deserted border areas, often with fatal results.
According to an official from a major intergovernmental organisation, Tunisian authorities relocated more than 4,000 people in July alone to military buffer zones at the borders with Libya and Algeria.
“About 1,200 people were pushed back to the Libyan border in the first week of July alone,” said the source, who was speaking on condition of anonymity. By late August, the source added, their organisation knew of seven people who had died of thirst after being pushed back.
An NGO working with refugees puts the estimate at between 50 and 70. The Guardian could not independently verify the figure.
The new claim comes in stark contrast to the picture painted last month by Tunisia’s interior minister, Kamel Fekih, who conceded that “little groups of six to 12 people” were being pushed back, but denied any mistreatment or form of “collective deportation”.
It is likely to increase pressure on European lawmakers to raise human rights concerns with the Tunisian authorities as they push ahead with a deal aimed at stemming irregular migration. The agreement is increasingly coming under fire, with the German foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, last week saying human rights and the rule of law had not been “given suitable consideration”.
In a series of interviews conducted with nearly 50 migrants in Sfax, Zarzis, Medenine and Tunis, the majority confirmed having been forcibly returned to the desert between late June and late July.
“In early July, the Tunisian police captured us in Sfax,’’ said Salma, a 28-year-old Nigerian woman. “My two-year-old son and I were taken by some policemen and pushed back into the desert at the Libyan border. My husband was captured by other border guards and I don’t know what happened to him. I haven’t heard from him since then because while they were pushing us back I lost my phone.’’
Michael, 38, from Benin City, Nigeria, said: “They pushed me back three times to the desert, the last time at the end of July … The Tunisian border guards beat us, stole our money and cellphones. In the desert we had no water. I had to drink my own urine to survive.”
The Guardian also spoke to Pato Crepin, a Cameroonian whose wife and daughter, Fati Dosso and six-year-old Marie, died in mid-July in a remote part of the Libyan desert after being pushed back by Tunisian authorities. “I should have been there in their place,” said Crepin, who has since been sent back, again, to Libya.
While the border with Libya has long been the focus of such activity, the border with Algeria, which is less controlled, is also seeing people pushed back into its vast no man’s land, reports indicate.
Fifteen people interviewed by the Guardian said they had been forced back to the Algerian border.
“They arrested me in Tunis and took me near Kasserine, a border town near Algeria,” said Djibril Tabeté, 22, from Senegal. “They left us at a few kilometres from the border. Then we were ordered to climb a hill. On the other side was Algeria. Problem is when the Algerian guard finds you, they push you to Tunisia. Tunisians push you, Algerians do the same. People die there.”
Reports of Tunisia removing people to the desert emerged in July, when photos suggesting that asylum seekers were dying of thirst and extreme heat after allegedly being pushed back by Tunisian authorities started circulating on social media. After the allegations, Tunisia’s government faced intense criticism from the international press but denied any wrongdoing.
“At the beginning, Tunisia dismissed reports of forced returns,” said Hassan Boubakri, a geography and migration professor at the universities of Sousse and Sfax, as well as a migration consultant for the government. “But little by little, they publicly admitted that some sub-Saharans were blocked on the Tunisian-Libyan border. The question is, who put them there? The Tunisian authorities did.”
According to figures from Italy’s interior ministry, more than 78,000 people have arrived in Italy by crossing the Mediterranean from north Africa since the beginning of the year, more than double the number of arrivals during the same period in 2022.
The majority, 42,719, departed from Tunisia, indicating that the country has surpassed Libya as the main departure point for migrants.
The “strategic partnership” signed between the EU and Tunis in July, reached after weeks of negotiations, envisaged money being sent to the north African country to combat human traffickers, tighten borders, and support Tunisia’s struggling economy.
The first payment of €127m would be disbursed “in the coming days”, a European Commission spokesperson, Ana Pisonero, said last week.