The fear is there, day and night, says Mamadou from Chad. We are not using his full name because he is afraid of reprisals. He tells what happened to him at the beginning of the month after he was unable to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa with the help of human traffickers.

“The Tunisian coast guard officers took our cell phones and our money, then they drove us to the Libyan border, where we had to take off our clothes and they left us behind,” he tells Deutsche Welle from his hiding place: an olive grove near the Tunisian port city of Sfax. Mamadou says he walked about 150 miles through the desert to get there.

The olive grove has become a notorious shelter for around 80,000 sub-Saharan migrants. They are waiting for a chance to cross the Mediterranean to get to Europe.

Lauren Seibert of Human Rights Watch researches refugee and migrant rights. What Mamadou and others experienced, she said, was “an unlawful collective expulsion, or as people say, a ‘desert disposal’.” Algeria, Libya and Mauritania have been practicing these collective expulsions for many years, but in Tunisia this is a more recent phenomenon that appears to be becoming systematic since last year.

A Tunisian migration expert who wishes to remain anonymous also sees it like Seibert: “There have only been a handful of cases in the past few years. Especially when smugglers’ boats from Libya were intercepted by Tunisian authorities. Now the deportations appear to be more systematic. Some of them are taken away from the cities of Sfax and Zarzis.”

Earlier this month, Lighthouse Reports, an investigative news organization that works with several international media outlets, published a report on the increase in so-called “desert dumps.” The organization investigated this approach for a year. It concludes that the Tunisian National Guard is at the center of these operations, with much of the funding coming from European countries.

Last year, the EU concluded so-called migration partnerships with Egypt, Morocco, Mauritania and Tunisia. The European funds are intended to curb migration to Europe. For many observers, recent developments in Tunisian migration policy are particularly worrying. Finally, Tunisia has become a popular starting point for migrants from all over Africa wanting to reach Europe.

The country had abolished visa requirements in 2015 and it was well known that the country needed cheap labour, making it an attractive stopover for people who needed to raise money to cross the Mediterranean.

Over the past decade, the port city of Sfax, less than 150 kilometers from Lampedusa, has become a major human trafficking center. And the Tunisian authorities more or less tolerated it.

But in February 2023, Tunisian President Kais Saied initiated a new, tough crackdown on migrants. He claimed that migrants entering the country from sub-Saharan countries were deliberately changing Tunisia’s demographic structure. Tunisia is in danger of turning into an “African” country instead of an “Arab-Muslim” one.

This was followed by nationwide police operations, supported in part by the Tunisian population, in which many sub-Saharan families were harassed, evicted from their homes and arbitrarily arrested. After international protests and some smaller local demonstrations, Saied came to Sfax to calm the situation.

In July last year, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, offered Tunisia the partnership package worth more than a billion euros: 900 million euros plus 150 million euros in emergency aid for the Tunisian budget and a further 105 million euros for border protection and Combating smuggling.

Although Saied has repeatedly stressed that Tunisia is neither a “center nor a way station for sub-Saharan Africans,” human rights activists say illegal collective deportations are skyrocketing. “Increasing EU funding for migration control encourages these collective expulsions, which violate regional and international law,” Human Rights Watch researcher Lauren Seibert told DW.

According to the AFP news agency, the EU did not explicitly respond to Lighthouse Reports’ allegations. However, EU Commission spokeswoman Ana Pisonero stated that “the situation in our partner countries is sometimes difficult… (but they) remain sovereign states and continue to have control over their national forces.”

For Seibert these are empty words. “Indeed, there is a clear link between EU funding and the continuation of these practices.”

Tunisia deported around 1,200 migrants to the border with Libya for the first time in May 2023. “This triggered a humanitarian crisis in which several migrants, including children, lost their lives. And it also led to a political crisis between Libya and Tunisia,” said the migration expert, who wishes to remain anonymous.

After an international outcry, large-scale deportations were halted in July. But they resumed in September after the Tunisian authorities again detained large numbers of people.

“Since then, some of the transports have gone to the Algerian border, where there is great tension with the Algerian border troops. Another part is brought to the Libyan border,” said the migration expert. Although there is currently no humanitarian crisis there, as the migrants are picked up fairly quickly by the Libyans, they end up in detention centers where they are exposed to the risk of abuse and extortion.

Collaboration: Tarak Guizani, Tunisia

Adaptation from English by Sabine Faber.

Author: Jennifer Holleis

The original of this article “Tunisia ‘disposes’ of refugees in ‘desert dumps’ – with money from the EU” comes from Deutsche Welle.