Tunisia, 4 months on the street: 214 between refugees andasylum seekers request resettlement to a safe country

by Riccardo Biggi, Valentina Lomaglio e Luca Ramello

Manifestanti a Rue du Lac 1, Tunisi / Protesters in Rue du Lac 1, Tunis. Ph. Riccardo Biggi, Valentina Lomaglio e Luca Ramello

Part one

Rue du Lac 1, Tunis: asit-in of people-on-the-move permanently occupies the street. Two hundred and fourteen people, including refugees and asylum seekers, have been forced to live onthe streets for four months in front of UNHCR’s headquarters.  A peaceful protest through which they hope to obtain legal transfer to a safe country.  -At the same time, the extreme consequence of a life of hardship and exclusion, that the protesters describe almost as apartheid. Wage discrimination, deaths at work, racist insults, sexual violence: these are just some of the systematic human rights violations that migrants suffer in the North African country.

No asylum law in Tunisia, Europe’s strategic partner in the migration dossier.

The chronicisation of the Libyan crisis has contributed to making Tunisia one of Europe’s strategic partners in the so-called ‘fight against illegal immigration’,  an umbrella termfor Europe’s border externalization policies., These consist in bilateral agreements with governments in the Southern Mediterranean neighborhood, such as Libya and Tunisia, with the provision of huge funding to local coastguards  to bring illegal immigrants back ashore. Rather than the gateway to Africa, these policies are turning the countries of  the Maghreb into traps for those fleeing wars and crises in so-called sub-Saharan Africa. 

The Tunisian case is particularly grotesque. Eleven years after the revolution, the country is experiencing a chronic economic and political crisis. Severe levels of unemployment drive tens of thousands of Tunisian citizens to undertake the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean every year. Such a journey should be defined as illegalized, because of thelack of an organic legislation and of the political will  to encourage  migration abroad – especially to wealthier countries in the North.

Despite this, Tunisia is considered a safe country by the international community. Therefore,  resettlement programmes tothird countries are few. In fact, only 76 people were evacuated and resettled in 2021, 75 per cent fewer than from Libya. 

Against this background the United Nations, and in particular UNHCR, are the only responsible body for the fate of asylum seekers and refugees in Tunisia. Thus,  it is to this commission that the 214 people protesting in Tunis  are addressing their claims for  resettlement.

About thirty children are present at the sit-in: their access to education is denied. (ph. Biggi, Lomaglio e Ramello)

Peaceful protests for protection and relocation

Protesters come from eight African countries: Eritrea, Sudan, Ethiopia, Chad, Niger, Libya, Central African Republic, Somalia. There are also some stateless people,  belonging to the Touareg tribesof the Sahara.

From a distance they look as a crowd of moving heads, feet and hands. Girls, boys, men and women; banners written in five languages; carpets, cartons and blankets lying messily on the ground; some people sleeping and some others wandering; some talking excitedly and some murmuring softly,  if not singing; some staring at the road, gaze lost; some eating a piece of  bread dipped in cold milk.

Mohammed1, a young man from Darfur, a region in the south-west of Sudan where  genocide against the local population has been going on for years, says: ‘For refugees and asylum seekers, life in Tunisia is dangerous, we want evacuation now.”  UNHCR says it will take care of us, but in reality we are not given any protection – if I could, I would go back to Libya now. It is better to die under bullets than like this, suffering slowly.” 

Europe is deaf, albeit very close. According to UNHCR, evacuation from Tunisia is not a right of the protesters, the country being a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention. Yet the bureaucratic procedures to obtain asylum are long and complex, in the absence of a national law for asylum to implement international conventions. Therefore, access to public services is hard. Regular work is scarce, access to schooling is limited, just like the possibility of receiving free medical care.

After the Sudanese, Eritreans represent the second largest group. Mostly,they are young boys.  Sitting together around an old carpet, they dine on cold canned beans mixed with spicy sauce and mayonnaise.  After having travelled throughSudan and Libya, where many of them suffered torture and sexual violence, they entered  Tunisia by sea, shipwrecking on the Kerkennah islands near Sfax. A similar fate befalls those who often after three or four interceptions at sea,manage to leave Libya from the cities of Sabrata, Zaouia, Zouara or Tripoli but   cannot reach Sicily and are brought back by the Tunisian coastguard. Intercepted in international or Tunisian waters, the travellersare then taken to Sfax or Gabes, where their endless asylum procedurebegins. 

Among the protesters there is also a sizable group of stateless Tuaregs from the Libyan desert, who are denied the right to citizenship. Sitting with his large family, Abdelkarim tells us how he arrived toTunisia via the Western land border at Dehiba. They sought asylum in Tataouine, a middle-sized  town in the southernmost governorate of Tunisia. There,many were put in prison for hours or days on the sole charge of having entered Tunisian territory without authorization. Identified by their brown and black skin, they are arrested in full violation of the human right to freedom of movement. 

There are also30 women of all ages taking part in the sit-in. Fatma, a Sudanese woman, sits on a mat next to her daughters and other connationals. She fled Sudan in 2011 to avoid forced marriage and the genital mutilation of her girls, and worked for four years in Libya as a nurse in a private clinic. Unable to leave for Europe, she decided to come to what is portrayed as the most liberal and welcoming of North African countries: Tunisia.

After receiving her asylum seeker’s card, UNHCR offered her a flat with paid rent. Waiting for the interview to determine her refugee status, she thought everything would go well. After a few weeks, however, she was evicted together with her daughters. “To get us out of the house, they cut off our water and electricity: so we had to leave.”

Barricades and barbed wire: the UN Refugee Agency headquarters in Zarzis, Tunisia. (ph. Biggi, Lomaglio e Ramello)

The role of UNHCR

The stories of these people converge on this point: at the end of January 2022, UNHCR evicted many of the asylum seekers and refugees to whom it had offered housing. The reasons stated by the agency is  the lack of funding.  In addition, places at the reception centers must be reserved for the newly arrived from the sea, although they have the capacity to shelter more refugees – yet not all of them. a.  

Since war broke out in Libya in 2011, the number of foreigners who have fled to Tunisia to continue their travel to Europe or to seek UNHCR protection has been steadily increasing. In 2021 there were as many as 9374 people of concern to UNHCR, according to the organization’s official figures. Like the  participants in the sit-it, thousands of other migrants in Tunisia are experiencing the harsh consequences of such a paradoxical invisibility.

The protests began on 9th February, in front of the UNHCR office in Zarzis in the southern governorate of Medenine. Refugees and asylum seekers from the reception centers in Zarzis and Medenine initially protested against theexpulsion from their flats. Then the demands changed, and the protesters have been protesting for immediate evacuation and relocation ever since. 

After three weeks of sit-ins in Zarzis, in the context of an exceptional meeting between the leader of the sit-it and a representative of UNHCR, the group managed to enter the building and to be heard, and obtained the promise of a solution. However, after claiming to have been physically attacked, the UNHCR director decided to close the office until 6th May. 

Then,  the protesters headed north to Tunis to continue the sit-in. On the way, they were stopped by the police at Zarzis’ bus station. In agreement with the UN Refugee Agency, the national government had in fact ordered the police authorities to prevent the protesters from reaching Tunis. Such illegal interceptions also took place at checkpoints in Sfax, Gabes, Sousse… big cities on the way to northern Tunisia. Ali, a Central African man, tells us that he was even arbitrarily detained for three days while trying to rejoin his friends. Because of these illegal interceptions, the protesters arrived in Tunis after a week having followed different roads, while others from various parts of Tunisia joined the protest. Upon their arrival at Rue du Lac, the first 18 were arbitrarily detained. It took the intercession of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES) to restore their freedom and right to peaceful demonstration. According to the protesters, the employees have been avoiding the main entrance for weeks now, and the only possible communication is reduced to telephone contact between one of the protest leaders and the director in charge of UNHCR in Tunis.

Despite the serious conditions in which these people find themselves, UNHCR is not in a position to carry out an ‘evacuation’ to third countries, as they requested. Contrary to the experiences of the protesters, UNHCR considers that in Tunisia, a country party to the 1951 Geneva Convention, the basic rights of refugees are respected and asylum seekers have access to basic services. UNHCR therefore claims to have proposed, since the first day of the sit-in, temporary solutions to get the protesters off the streets, and long-term solutions such as opportunities for socio-economic inclusion. Meanwhile, finding food and continuing to sleep on the streets is becoming increasingly complicated, especially with the spread of diseases. Some children, malnourished, need medical care. The majority of adults have health problems and need immediate or ongoing treatment.  

A few days ago, a member of the Tuareg tribe was run over 300 meters from the sit-in, injuring his head. He was immediately  brought to the hospital, but without chance: on the 25th May, he died. This event has further lowered the morale of the group.

On 11th May 2022, in an attempt to calm the protests, UNHCR proposed the protesters move to two new reception centers near Tunis. Despite promises to speed up asylum procedures, the protesters say they are strongly distrustful of the international organization. They know, in fact, that only a third state can decide to open a resettlement and reception programme. 

Time passes, and no one in Tunisia takes responsibility for these people. People who – complicit the international interests of classifying Tunisia as a safe country – are abandoned in a limbo whose end is impossible to predict. They thus remain invisible and excluded from legality, forced to remain on the streets, unheard. Despite growing difficulties, the determination to resist remains. One group of protesters has already stated that they will accept no other solution than evacuation. As morale drops day by day, the prospect of having to return to the Libyan “hell” becomes more and more concrete. Tunisia was not the paradise that was expected.

(to be continued)


Protesters in Zarzis: ‘We need freedom: there is no justice in Tunisia’.
  1. The names in this column are fictional, to protect the identity of the persons interviewed.