Stranded migrants confront violence and despair as Tunisia partners to keep them from Europe

FILE - Wrecked boats that carried migrants are seen in the coastal city of Monastir, Tunisia, on April 16, 2018. Tens of thousands of migrants are trapped in an increasingly violent limbo in camps In Tunisia, blocked from reaching Europe but too poor to go home, and facing backlash from local residents. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty, File)

By SAM METZ Associated Press

EL AMRA, Tunisia (AP) — For many migrants who’ve long dreamed of Europe, one of the last stops is an expanse of olive trees on North Africa’s Mediterranean coastline.

But in Tunisia, less than 100 miles (161 kilometers) from the Italian islands that form the European Union’s outermost borders, for many that dream has become a nightmare.

Under black tarps covered with blankets and ropes, men, women and children seek shelter from sunlight and wait for their chance to board one of the iron boats that paid smugglers use to transport people to Italy. Having fled war, poverty, climate change or persecution, they find themselves trapped in Tunisia — unable to reach Europe but without money to fund a return home.

Based on unofficial estimates, the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration said it believes 15,000 to 20,000 migrants are stranded in rural olive groves near the central Tunisian coastline. Their presence is a byproduct of anti-migration policies being championed in both Tunisia and throughout Europe, particularly from right-wing politicians who made big gains in the European Union’s parliamentary elections this week, according to early projections provided by the EU.

The encampments have grown in size since last year as police have pushed migrants out of cities and ramped up efforts to prevent Mediterranean crossings.

When police razed tents last summer in Sfax, Tunisia’s second largest city, many migrants moved to the countryside near the stretch of coastline north of the city.

Among them is Mory Keita, a 16-year-old who left a flood-prone suburb outside of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, last September to link up with a friend already in Tunisia. Keita arrived at an encampment called Kilometer-19 earlier this year.

Named for a highway marker denoting its distance from Sfax, Kilometer-19 is notorious for clashes between migrant groups, he said. “Machete brawls” regularly break out between groups that self-sort by nationality — including Cameroonians, Ivorians, Guineans and Sudanese. When police come, it’s not to ensure safety, but to disband encampments by force, Keita said.

“The truth is I’m afraid of where we are,” he said. “Innocent people get hurt. The police don’t intervene. It’s not normal.”

Passportless, Keita said he paid a smuggler an initial sum of 400,000 Central African Francs ($661) to take him through Mali and Algeria last year. He dreams of resettling in France, finding work and sending earnings back to his family in Ivory Coast.

Keita made it onto a boat on the Mediterranean Sea in March, but Tunisia’s coast guard intercepted it, arrested him and returned him to the nearby beach without any bureaucratic processing, he said.

With European funds and encouragement, the coast guard has successfully prevented more migrants like Keita than ever before from making dangerous journeys across the sea. From January to May, it stopped nearly 53,000 migrants from crossing its maritime border to Europe, Interior Minister Kamel Fekih said last month.

Less than 10,000 migrants successfully crossed from Tunisia to Italy this year, down from 23,000 in the same time period last year.

That fulfills objectives that European leaders outlined last summer when they brokered a 1 billion euro ($1.1 billion) accord with Tunisia. Though the funds have not been completely disbursed, the deal included 105 million euros ($114 million) for migration-related programs. NGOs such as the Catholic Committee Against Hunger and for Development have decried a lack of transparency and information about the programs.

While fewer people landing on the shores of Italy looks like a success, the resulting logjam on the Tunisian coastline is fomenting anger and despair among migrants and Tunisians. Civil society groups have demanded the government expel migrants. Politicians have urged residents to form “citizen militias” to police the area.

“You brought them here and it’s your responsibility to send them back to their home countries,” Moamen Salemi, a 63-year old retiree from nearby El Amra, said at one of several recent anti-migrant protests.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said last month it was “very concerned by the increased targeting in Tunisia of migrants, mostly from south of the Sahara, and individuals and organizations working to assist them.”

“We are witnessing a rise in the use of dehumanizing and racist rhetoric against Black migrants and Black Tunisians,” it said in a statement.

Though migrants from sub-Saharan Africa have been a political flashpoint, the majority of those who have made it from North Africa to Italy this year have been from either Syria, Bangladesh or Tunisia itself.

The government has for more than a year been accused of deporting migrants across its borders with Libya and Algeria, many who are later found dead. Tunisia has acknowledged bussing migrants to the remote borderlands near the two neighboring countries. Yet removing them from areas near the coast does little to answer the anti-migrant anger brewing among residents, many of whom have tried to emigrate to Europe themselves in search of more freedom and better economic opportunities.

The visibility of Black migrants at cafes, markets, money transfer offices and city streets periodically unleashes a xenophobic backlash from locals troubled by their presence and farmers asking the government to remove encampments from their land.

Their hostility echoes remarks made by President Kais Saied, who last year gave a speech claiming migrants were part of a conspiracy to erase Tunisian identity.

Police keep a heavy presence and the national guard roams the olive-growing towns of El Amra and Jebeniana, which journalists are increasingly barred from covering. Migrants have posted videos on social media of encampments burning after law enforcement raids spurred by calls from local farmers. “Disappeared” notices asking for help finding missing people are posted daily in Facebook groups popular with migrants.

“This situation cannot continue and Tunisia will not be a land for the settlement of migrants,” Saied said at a National Security Council meeting in May, where without evidence he revived his questions about nefarious foreign actors pushing to keep migrants in Tunisia.

The EU hopes to limit migration with policies including development assistance, voluntary return and repatriation for migrants and forging closer ties with neighboring governments that police their borders.

Despite the plight of those trapped in Tunisia, European leaders like Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni have lauded the 2023 accord as a model agreement for managing migration. She visited four times over the past year.

The EU also expressed worry after a group of journalists, migration activists and attorneys were arrested last month — including one for making a remark about migration. It said that “freedoms of expression and association, as well as the independence of the judiciary, are guaranteed by the Tunisian Constitution and constitute the basis of our partnership.”

While they note the democratic backslide, officials have not threatened to cut off the assistance to Tunisia that many see as a life raft for Saied’s government.

Majdi Karbai, a former member of Tunisia’s parliament living in Italy, said the nature of the partnership with the EU had imperiled democracy in Tunisia and came at the expense of human rights for African migrants and Tunisians.

Migrants will likely continue to transit through Tunisia and Karbai said Saied uses them as fodder for populist rhetoric that positions him as a defender of struggling Tunisians and also to secure more assistance from Europe.

“Tunisia makes Europe believe it’s doing its job as it must,” Karbai said. “It’s good for Saied in terms of his supporters and for his speeches when he says Tunisia won’t be a country that resettles migrants.”


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