Violent eviction of refugee protest in Tunis: the request for collective evacuation remains unheeded

The report and videos of the eviction. By Laura Morreale, Riccardo Biggi, Valentina Lomaglio and Luca Ramello

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The actions of UNHCR and the Tunisian state are intended to divide and disperse the refugee movement that since february has been calling for evacuation to a safe country.

Tunis – On the morning of Saturday, June 18th, police cleared what remained of the refugee sit-in in Rue du Lac (Tunis) in front of UNHCR headquarters. The protesters had been camping out for months. The majority of them moved from Zarzis, after the decision of emptying their assigned residences due to lack of funds. Their request to UNHCR is to be evacuated to a safe country, due to the absence of a reception system and the systemic discrimination that refugees face in Tunisia. As we reported earlier, some of them were moved to residences in Er-Roued, about 20 kilometers far from the capital, but others -about 100- still remained on the streets, waiting for solutions.

The eviction involved all the people present, many of whom are families with young children. The people’s tents, mattresses and other few belongings were taken away. In the face of resistance from the protesters, numerous abuses by the Tunisian police reportedly took place. 
I., one of the protest leaders, had refused to leave the site and was filming the scene: the policemen reacted by beating him and taking him away. With him were his wife and daughters, who are minors. In case he is not released immediately, mediation action for his release will be taken by the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights in the next hours.

After the violent eviction, a few armed officers and many plainclothes police stayed in and around Rue du Lac. Some refugees stayed in the nearby of UNHCR offices and are still demonstrating with peaceful chants and other acts of civil resistance. Police continue to seize their belongings and intimidate them to leave. Videos posted by protesters show the moments after the eviction and I.’s arrest. People are still gathering to claim their right to demonstrate and to obtain evacuation from Tunisia. Some try not to be discovered by the police in the act of filming the protests, to avoid violent reactions as has already happened to their comrade.

According to rumors, on the same day UNHCR was to  complete the relocation of the Zarzis group – with the last 36 of the 214 people who began the protests-  to new residences near Tunis. Anyway, even I., the detained leader, was part of that group, and his family remains in the street. Other people from the group of Tunis were instead taken to the new shelters. Once again the decision seems to be therefore aleatory. For those left on the street, no solution was planned: today’s eviction seems to be intended to eliminate the problem in the eyes of the public by simply making the remaining people disappear in front of the UN agency’s offices. The sit-in area is also considered sensitive because of the presence of other embassies.
Thus, with the eviction, an attempt is being made to finally disaggregate the movement that has been calling for months for a collective evacuation and recognition of Tunisia as an unsafe country for refugees. People who have been moved into residence have been promised a reopening of asylum applications, but on an individual basis. Since there is no national asylum recognition system in Tunisia, this promise actually translates into a vain hope of being placed in resettlement programs, but these are managed by the countries of arrival. There are few places dedicated to resettlement from Tunisia, however, as the country is internationally recognized as safe. The demonstrations do not seem to be helping at the moment to open new places for relocation.

Those who remain on Rue du Lac Biwa risk being made invisible and silenced: the eviction came as a result of the allocation of residences to a portion of the protesters. According to the FTDES, this morning’s police operations were coordinated with UNCHR, and we could witness it with our own eyes. According to protesters and other observers on the ground, police remained at the sit-in to deter anyone straying from returning. More arbitrary detentions were carried out as a means of deterring participation tothe  protests.

But all the protesters, even those who are now in the UNHCR foyers, are determined not to drop their call for collective evacuation. The situation is constantly evolving, and it is important to make it known in order to amplify as much as possible the voices of those who, for too long, have been suffering on their skin the arbitrary choices of a border policy that refuses to recognize freedom of movement as a fundamental right. Third countries, EU first and foremost, have a responsibility to provide more places for resettlement of refugees and asylum seekers.

After this morning’s violent eviction, how much more evidence is needed to recognize that Tunisia is not a safe country for them?

The testimony of a child: “They took my daddy, my mummy is here, they took my food, my clothes and everything. And my toys. My toys were stolen and taken away. Then they threw water at us“.