Between 15 and 16 July 2023, by the MSF search and rescue vessel, the Geo Barents conducted 11 consecutive rescue operations in the Central Meditteranean for an influx of boats in distress that had departed from Sfax, Tunisia. Once safe onboard the Geo Barents, survivors started telling MSF teams horrific accounts of the fear, torture, abuse and violence they experienced in Tunisia, which had dramatically escalated by the end of February.
On 21 February 2023, the Tunisian president, Kais Saied, made a statement incriminating sub-Saharan Africans in Tunisia. The president accused them of aiming to change the demographic composition of the country. The speech amplified existing racist sentiments against black migrants among a certain part of the population.
Following the speech, survivors reported increased violence and abuse by Tunisian security forces, arbitrary arrests, cases of theft of belongings, including in detention, in the streets, or at checkpoints, and collective expulsions to borders with Algeria and Libya, that were already ongoing prior to the speech but seemed to amplify. In addition, incidents of civilian population-organized attacks and violence in urban settings and raids, which included stoning, knife-attacks and racial slurs. Survivors told us about mass evictions of sub-Saharan tenants, racial discrimination and denial of access to goods and services.
“People were beating, chasing and assaulting us if we were found in the streets. We were told to leave our ‘black houses’. People started looting and throwing Molotov cocktails at our houses,” Boniface adds. “Many were severely injured. We don’t know what happened to them.”
“One morning I got up and the homeowner came and told me: ‘The president has said, you Africans must go home. We cannot host Africans anymore’” said Fatima, a 32 yearold woman.
Survivors also reported harassment and humiliation, including racist slurs, people spitting at them, or holding their noses when they passed them on the streets. “The whole four months I spent there, people attacked and stole from us. We do not fight with them,” said Mamadu*, a 17-year-old boy. “People in Tunisia were telling us ‘We don’t need black people here’.”
“When I was in jail, the police stopped giving us bread and water. They said ‘no, the toilets are closed’,” reports Hakim*, a 26-year-old man. “After three days, they just put us is a car and left us in the streets. They took our phones and all our salaries. They took everything.”
While under police custody, survivors outlined several incidents of expulsion to bordering countries Libya and Algeria. “In Sfax they pick up the blacks, with papers or not, and send them to the borders with Algeria,” says Fatima. Another survivor reported how he and other people were sent off to the desert. “The Tunisian police do not want to see black people. They hate us. When they took us to Algeria, we walked for almost a week in the desert.”
Since the beginning of 2023, the number of boats departing from Tunisia has increased. The rise in numbers of people, including Tunisian citizens and migrants, fleeing Tunisia has meant that it has overtaken Libya as the main departure point for Central Mediterranean crossings to Europe in 2023. It is estimated that in the first six months of 2023, 56% of the people arriving in Italy via the Central Mediterranean route embarked in Tunisia; more than double the number as compared to the same period in 2022.
While MSF teams spoke only to a few of those who managed to flee and were rescued at sea, the lives and safety of many more is at stake, risked by violence, racist persecution, and a worsening social and political situation. Their well-being and rights have been forsaken by European migration policies, replicating deadly agreements, as the agreements with Türkiye and Libya, to externalize border controls and incentivize countries like Tunisia and Libya to carry out aggressive pushbacks and deterrents.
* Names of survivors were changed to protect people’s identities.