Tunisia safe harbor? Stories of violence and deportations from the Tunisian-Libyan border

Tunisia constitutes a double border, the externalized European border and the border with Libya, and is the scene of a constant transit of thousands of migrants: men, women and children flee Libya daily, go to the Tunisian coast, cross its sea, walk on its land, work and are exploited. They have no rights, neither alive nor dead, in a constant succession of bodies and stories of which memory and awareness are often lost.

But the counting of deaths and arrivals is unavoidable when History consciously omits the horrors and violence that occur relentlessly on these shores. The migrants’ recollections of the routes that they took, and their experiences are then precious assets to map the geography of this brutality.

Tunis, Zarzis, Medenine, Ben Gardane and Ras Agedir – pivotal points in the circulation space of migrants on Tunisian soil – were the places where in the first week of August we intervened as national and international associations: Bergamo migrante antirazzista, Borderline Sicilia, Campagna LasciateCIEntrare, Caravana Abriendo Fronteras, Carovana Migranti, Dossier Libia, Europe Zarzis Afrique, Movimiento Migrante Mesoamericano, Progetto 20k, Progetto MeltingPot Europa and unaffiliated individuals. A network of reflection and action located in this polysemic and heterogeneous space that, on the invitation of the group “Europe Zarzis Afrique”, had the town of Zarzis as a meeting point from the 1st to the 5th of August, and then extended to the other junctions of the border area.

Our contribution was to encourage an active denunciation and remembrance with the locals, acting against the violence of criminal and criminalizing policies.

Testimonies and reports of these facts have confirmed that Tunisia is not a safe country for migrants and refugees, considering the countless detentions, violations and deportations that are carried out.

Land of arrivals and departures: memory and action in Zarzis

The key scene of this intense road behind the bricks of Fortress Europe is the town of Zarzis. On its coasts, in an uninterrupted traffic, there are the departures of migrants to Europe and the arrival of lifeless bodies of migrants from Libya, due to shipwrecks at sea. Tunisian and Sub-Saharan migrants have offered us the stories of their journeys that can last from a few months up to a few years, along a complex and uncertain migratory route.

The Cemetery of the Unknown in Zarzis – Photo by Silvia Di Meo

Among the local actors there are those committed on a daily basis to restore value to migrants’ lives – those who have made it and those who haven’t – combating European criminalisation. These include the work of the group of Tunisian fishermen who rescue migrants at sea or the commitment of the fisherman Chamseddine Marzoug to bury the corpses in the “Cemetery of the Unknown” in a pocket of isolated, dusty and forgotten land. Then there are the testimonies of the mothers of the Tunisian migrants who disappeared at sea, who were the protagonists of a dialogue with Ana Enamorado and Mario Vergara, an example of an unstoppable struggle for justice for their missing relatives.

We should also remember the testimony of the poet Mohsen Lihidheb in collecting the objects of the migrants that the sea brings back to earth, giving order to shoes worn by men and women, in a museum of memory that tries to give meaning to lives broken by the brutality of borders. Shoes dragged along the shoreline by the current and shoes that walk the paths towards Europe: in this limbo of land departures and arrivals are the order of the day. In addition to the Tunisian locals – who have been doing the harraga for decades, that means, “burning” the Mediterranean border by traveling on small boats – there are many Sub-Saharan migrants passing through Tunisia to reach Europe. The phase of stopping in this Tunisian limbo is for Sub-Saharan migrants a period of anxious waiting before leaving for the longed-for Europe. According to the group “Europe Zarzis Afrique” it would be desirable in this sense to promote workshops of alternative economies that allow the construction of spaces of existence and coexistence.

Our monitoring of this complex space has revealed a clear mapping of the critical points: necropolitics and structural violence characterize a reality in which it is difficult to remain indifferent spectators.

From Tunis to Medenine: the condition of segregation and violence of refugees and unaccompanied minors

Eritrea, Sudan, Mali, Senegal, Chad, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Guinea Conakry. These are the countries of origin of the Sub-Saharan migrants we met in Medenine and Zarzis: more than 1,000 asylum seekers to date who are received in centres that are in degraded conditions. The migrants have complained of depression, poor hygiene conditions, lack of pocket money, lack of employment and integration possibilities.

We have seen the presence of many vulnerable people who would need assistance and who instead remain excluded from the society, subject of racist attacks. Some people are so desperate that they threaten to attempt suicide or return to Libyan hell to at least have a chance to work.

Conditions do not improve in the centre for unaccompanied foreign minors, where the young people complain of total abandonment, deprivation of health and legal assistance.

A particularly serious case is that of the group of about 200 Eritrean asylum seekers who are between Tunis and Medenine. These people have been given a card by the UNHCR which identifies them as refugees, but which in reality has no value, since Tunisia has not signed any international agreement on the recognition of refugee status. Because of this paradox, Eritrean migrants have no access to any services: they are denied the legal and medical assistance they so badly need and have no chance of moving to safe countries. From their stories, the fear of exposing themselves is palpable. In fact, the asylum seekers have tried to express their demands in Tunis on June 20th, during the International Refugee Day, through a peaceful sit-in to which the Tunisian police brutally responded with arrests and beatings.

Foto by Silvia Di Meo

Following these reports, we alerted a group of lawyers and produced a statement addressed to UNHCR Tunisia, denouncing the illegality of these actions and requesting immediate reprimand.

Ben Gardane and Ras Agedir. The violence concealed on the Libyan border and the case of the 36 deported Ivorians

The brutality of the Tunisian migration policies we witnessed reached its peak on August 4th with the deportation of 36 Ivorian migrants from the town of Sfax to the Libyan border: 21 men, 11 women (one of whom was pregnant) and 4 children were abandoned at the border territory of Ras Agedir, left for four days in a military zone. This violence was attested to by a video circulated online by Tunisian activists of the “Forum tunisien pour les Droits Economiques et Sociaux”. Our mobilization in favour of their liberation – through the coordination and joint participation of the activists – has continued unabated in order to prevent a tragedy.

Thanks to the telephone contact of one of the deportees, A., it was possible to monitor the conditions of the Ivorians under the control and responsibility of the Garde Nationale: the migrants suffered for days from heat and lack of food, the pregnant woman suffered blood loss and convulsions.

The mobilizations in Tunis organized by the association “Terre pour Tous” in front of the UNHCR headquarters, the garrison on the border with Libya, the dissemination of press releases, the pressure on IOM, UNHCR, the Red Crescent and Amnesty International have allowed after long days to unblock the situation.

The Tunisian government’s position has always been to deny the shameful act to the point of attempting to discredit the work of the Italian activists, despite the evidence of audio recordings collecting migrants’ voices. Even after the delegation of activists who incessantly guarded the border with Libya pushed into the military area, towards the last check-point in the Libyan area of Ras Agedir, to meet the head of the police force: under the Libyan border wall, a few steps from the place where the migrants were abandoned, the authority that met us consciously denied any information. Not only that: after the release of the migrants, the Tunisian government denied any responsibility, declaring that the people recovered were not the ones reported on the raving/by the rating activists.

This stifling of information fits perfectly with the phenomenon of denial with respect to what happens between the two shores of the Mediterranean, in that sea and on those lands where rights are systematically denied. We have been aware of this: in those days, in the distressed wait for the phone calls of our friend A., we measured the very high price of the dramatic silence, both of Europe and of its externalized borders.

Border networks and resistance for freedom of movement

The seriousness of the events we have witnessed unequivocally expresses the dangerous nature of the transit and stay of migrants in Tunisia, a country that we do not consider safe, despite the fact that Europe continues to consider it a political partner in the management of migration.

It is clear that the criminalizing, securitarian and punitive governance of European states is helping to shape new forms of domination and exploitation that must be made visible and denounced. The support of activists and associations is today a fundamental contribution, within joint mobilizations, fought on geographical borders or far from them, in a Mediterranean area that – it should not be forgotten – belongs to us and is part of our history.

Demonstration at the port of Zarzis – Photo by Silvia Di Meo

Tunisia is not just a Europe-funded outpost on Libya, or an externalized border lapped by the murderous sea. Tunisia is also a shore that belongs to the vast Mediterranean area where a network of transnational resistance can be built. In fact, around the movements of refugees and migrants, connections have been established that are based on migrants and activists.

An example of this is the teamwork between the associative realities in Zarzis, in a union from Tunisia to Italy, from Spain to Mexico that also materialized on the last day of meetings in a demonstration. “Liberté de mouvement sans visa”, “Stop violence in Lybia” were the key claims represented at the port of Zarzis, close to a sea full of stories and tragedies.

“May Zarzis be like Riace, a shining star in the history and paths of migrants.” Our friend Mohsen proclaimed in his poem “Comme Riace”, inviting to build a network of resistance between the two shores of the sea.

We must hope for this commitment, between the desire to understand and the will to transform, so that in these dark times between the two sides of the sea – beyond the coasts of Sicily and those of Zarzis – the same active disobedience to the practices of confinement of mobility, illegitimate imprisonment, marginalizing exclusion may be animated.

So that the rescue of migrants by Tunisian fishermen as well as by NGOs under attack can follow; so that the courageous steps of those who challenge the borders are uninterrupted as well as the relentless swaying of the shoes of the shipwrecked people remembered in the museum of memory; so that the testimonies of Tunisian and Mexican mothers of the disappeared help to put an end to these tragedies; so that the stories of all the migrants met on the borders are not forgotten, so that the bodies become people again and the numbers names. And so that the voids are not allowed to be filled, the guilty unpunished, the truth removed, as one of those many to which the world is indifferent.

This is the concrete way to support all those who cross borders, who remain in our fights against European policies and in our will to act so that the right to free movement is a right for everyone.

Well, we will continue to stand at the borders, to inhabit them, to monitor them, to witness them, to denounce them. Not to succumb to the habit of indifference. To resist. To never forget that this is also our story.

Silvia Di Meo

Borderline Sicilia

Translation from Italian by Francesca Cavallo