Italy-Tunisia: Tunisian authorities undertake border control for Italy

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The Tunisian National Guard has 'rescued' many boats carrying migrants and refugees in the past few months. However, these vessels were not all in distress when they were 'rescued'.

A colonel in the National Guard's maritime section explained in an interview with the authors of this article that the current bilateral agreement with Italy foresees that the Tunisian Navy and the Tunisian National Guard should block boats carrying migrants, even if they are not in distress.

Two migrants rescued on the 5th and 7th of June respectively explained that the Tunisian National Guard diverted the boats they were in to Zarzis harbour, even though they were not in distress. But fishermen in Zarzis and Sfax report that Tunisian authorities have not responded to SOS signals they have launched after finding migrant boats that were sinking.

What happens to migrants and refugees after they are disembarked in Tunisia?

First they are identified by the Tunisian National Guard who attempt to identify their nationality and age. Then they are taken to the city of Medenine, where the Tunisian Red Cross is in charge of processing them into two categories.

Those who come from "unsafe countries" (Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Mali, Somalia and Eritrea) are placed in the UNHCR's foyer. Those from a "safe country" to which they can try and return people (Cameroun, Senegal, Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria and Ivory Coast, for instance, in the Red Cross' and UNHCR's assessment) are placed in another building without any humanitarian assistance or legal support.

Those at the UNHCR foyer are registered by the Tunisian Red Cross and asked if they want to claim asylum. On the contrary, migrants from "safe countries" are taken to and left in a decrepit building without any food and with no furniture but some mattresses on the floor.

None of the people present in this building at the time of an August 2014 visit had been informed by UNHCR or by the Red Cross about the possibility and the right to claim asylum, nor about the legal procedure. The first organization they met upon arrival was the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), which asked them: "are you a migrant?" - as if people who most of the time have been travelling for years even before arriving in Tunisia's neighbour Libya could give a negative answer. It seems that the question is asked to prevent a huge number of the people rescued at sea from claiming asylum.

The "humanitarian actors" in Tunisia draw a sharp distinction between those who are treated as asylum seekers and encouraged to accept the local integration program in Tunisia, and those who are pushed to leave the country or even encouraged to go back to Libya or to their country of origin with IOM voluntary return programs.

"Before letting them claiming asylum, we must check that they meet the criteria. Indeed, usually, migrants rescued at sea should go back home," a Red Cross officer told the authors about people in Medenine. This astonishing statement reveals that people from "safe countries" are not even permitted to submit asylum claims.

Refugees from Choucha

Among those intercepted or rescued at sea are migrants who lived in the UNHCR Choucha refugee camp for three years, refugees who refused the local integration program, and rejected refugees who have been denied international protection.

Even statutory refugees from Choucha have not received the residence permit from the Tunisian government, as the country does not yet have an asylum law.

People from Choucha under UNHCR protection have been rescued at sea by the National Guard during attempts to go to Italy, and have subsequently lost their refugee status. To the Tunisian authorities they are economic migrants who entered the territory illegally. They are jailed in the prison of Ouardia in Tunis. This is the case of Z., a refugee from Choucha who after being rescued, remained in prison for two months.

"Choucha does not exist anymore. Those who are still there are only nomads in the desert," said an officer from one international organisation. The authors of this piece heard such statements frequently from other humanitarian organizations and migration agencies like IOM, when questioned about Choucha camp.

After UNHCR's official closure of the camp in June 2013, the site has been made invisible by governmental and humanitarian actors, despite the presence of about 100 people (including sick persons) who are still there, with no food and medical assistance, and living in extreme conditions.

Medenine is becoming a space where people escaping Libya are placed and where their presence is much less noticeable than at Choucha camp. Tunisia has become a pre-border zone for people escaping wars whom, if they are rescued, are then left stranded in sub-standard buildings and even jailed.

[This article is an external contribution by authors who wished to remain anonymous. If you wish to contribute material to Statewatch please contact us]

Further reading

  • 'EU and Tunisia sign Mobility Partnership - Italy among the 10 Partnership member States', Statewatch News Online, March 2014
  • 'Borders, deaths and resistance', Statewatch Journal, February 2014
  • 'EU's rejection of migrants during the Arab Spring: a "historical mistake" according to Commissioner Malmström', Statewatch News Online, June 2012
  • Yasha Maccanico, 'The EU's self-interested response to unrest in north Africa: the meaning of treaties and readmission agreements between Italy and north African states', Statewatch Analysis, September 2011

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