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Sub-Saharan Africans flee violence in Tunisia: Departures from Sfax on the rise

Migrants leave the Tunisian city of Sfax in an attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea, April 27, 2023. Photo: Reuters

By Leslie Carretero Published on : 2023/07/31

Sub-Saharan Africans fleeing racial violence, raids and abuse by authorities in Tunisia have contributed to the substantial increase in Mediterranean Sea crossings. Rescue ships report that they are increasingly called upon for assistance with boats in distress coming from Tunisia.

On July 23, five sub-Saharan Africans disappeared after their boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea. The two women, two men and child were traveling with some forty other people in a boat that had left Sfax, in central-eastern Tunisia, the evening before, ANSA reported.

The boat capsized when shortly after their departure, the Migrants crossed paths with Tunisian fishermen who approached the boat to attempt to steal its engine, according to survivors’ accounts.

Another group of migrants had better luck a few days earlier. The Geo Barents private rescue vessel, of Doctors without Borders (MSF), came to the assistance of 462 people in 12 different boats in distress in Maltese waters on July 15 and 16. The majority of the boats had left Tunisia.

Like the Geo Barents, the humanitarian ship Mare*Go has picked up hundreds of people fleeing Tunisia in recent days. The arrivals in Lampedusa confirmed the trend. The majority of the approximately 1,000 migrants who arrived on the small Italian island on July 20 had set sail from Sfax.

Departures from Sfax have increased in recent months. On June 22 alone, several migrants drowned while attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Julien* lost his wife that same day when the boat they were in capsized. He confirmed that dozens of other boats had left Tunisia during the past 24 hours. “Nobody wants to stay in a country that has nothing more to offer,” he said. “I’m waiting to have enough money and then I’m leaving.”

Read more: Sub-Saharan migrants abandoned in the Tunisian desert: “We are going to die of thirst, help us.”

Zero boats from Tunisia rescued in 2022, MSF

Tunisia has for years been a transit country for thousands of migrants hoping to reach Europe through Italy by crossing the Mediterranean Sea. The cities of Sfax and Zarzis in particular are central jumping-off points because of their proximity to Lampedusa. About 150 kilometres of sea separate the Italian and Tunisian coasts. Departures are therefore frequent, especially during summer months when weather conditions are more favorable.

And the phenomenon is intensifying. “In 2022, we did not carry out a single rescue of people leaving from Tunisia,” said Caroline Willemen, MSF project coordinator on the Geo Barents. “We began taking in charge people fleeing Tunisia since January, and the trend intensified since the beginning of July,” she added.

The Geo Barents, the MSF boat, generally concentrates its patrols off the coast of Libya, but the Italian coast guard has recently called upon it for assistance with boats in destress coming from Tunisia near Lampedusa. “During our last mission [mid-July, editor’s note], after a rescue near the Libyan coast, the Italian authorities asked us for help rescuing 11 boats in the search and rescue zone. The vessels were full of sub-Saharan Africans leaving Tunisia,” said Caroline Willemen.

Statistics also show a significant increase in the flow of migrants to Italy. Since January 1, 81,000 people have arrived in Italy by sea – an increase of 140% compared to the same period last year when 33,000 arrivals were recorded.

Read more: Tunisia: Hundreds of African migrants detained and expelled

Attacks, raids, abandonment in the desert

The exodus is attributed to deteriorating living conditions for sub-Saharan Africans in Tunisia. The situation was already tense following a speech by President Kaïs Saïed last February, criticizing the presence of sub-Saharan Africans in Tunisia and labelling them as a threat. The president reiterated his remarks on June 26, speaking of migrants who “terrorize” citizens.

Following the death of a Tunisian man in clashes with migrants in Sfax on July 3, sub-Saharan Africans were attacked on the streets by inhabitants armed with sticks or machetes, their homes are ransacked and their belongings looted. Most have reportedly lost their jobs and their homes, with landlords now refusing to rent apartments to sub-Saharan Africans. Migrants go into hiding, for fear of being abused or even worse, arrested by the police.

Read more : Sub-Saharan migrants abandoned in the Tunisian desert: “We are going to die of thirst, help us”

More recently, images of sub-Saharan migrants abandoned in the middle of the desert and exhausted under a blazing sun have been shared on social networks over the past two weeks. Tunisian authorities allegedly abandoned the migrants without water or food after raids carried out in Sfax, Ben Guardane and other Tunisian cities. Hundreds of migrants are still waiting for help at present, the IOM and the UNHCR recently warned.

In the desert, Libyan border guards give water to dehydrated migrants, July 22, 2023. Photo: Twitter screen capture

Some five migrants are reported to have died of dehydration along the Tunisian-Libyan border, and other bodies have reportedly been found in the Tunisian-Algerian border region. The number of deaths is largely underestimated, according to information given to InfoMigrants. Many people have been lost in the vast Sahara, with sand covering their bodies over time.

InfoMigrants collected the stories of several Sub-Saharan Africans living in Tunisia. When the violence began on July 3, Salif* was convinced: “This situation will hasten the departures,” said the 39-year-old Ivorian who has been living in Tunisia for several years with his wife and daughter. He never considered leaving for Europe. Now, like so many others, he sees “no other solution”.

“With what is happening at the moment, all sub-Saharan Africans aspire to go to Europe, even those who never wanted to leave by crossing the sea,” he said in early July.

Daouda* or Kalilou* agree. The two Ivorians tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea several times in recent days, but they were stopped by the Tunisian coast guard each time. “We have no luck,” they said.

*Names have been changed

 Read more: Why is the Tunisian president going after sub-Saharan migrants?

The post Sub-Saharan Africans flee violence in Tunisia: Departures from Sfax on the rise appeared first on Xavier Radio UG.



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