The sit-in that was organized on March 21 in front of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Tunis has been completely dismantled. On Tuesday, April 11, law enforcement forcefully evicted the occupants, who were mostly asylum seekers and refugees demanding to be evacuated to a safer country than Tunisia. Municipal agents removed mattresses and blankets, leaving the scene in disarray. The operation was described as “extremely violent” by Alia*, a Nigerian woman who is still in shock: “They took everything, all our belongings, even my phone. They also confiscated an envelope containing money that my family had sent me from my home country.”
The group of several dozen people – including women, men and sometimes very young children – consisted of Sudanese, South Sudanese, Eritrean and other nationals. They fled their countries due to conflicts and were unable to seek repatriation through their embassies as they faced serious threats.
Alia, her husband and the others relocated to the vicinity of the headquarters of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), located a few hundred meters from the UNHCR office. In this narrow pedestrian alley, close to 200 people have been camping on the ground under precarious conditions. This situation arose after President Kais Saied’s speech on February 21, in which he made derogatory remarks about “hordes of illegal migrants,” triggering an unprecedented wave of violence, arrests and deportations targeting Black individuals.
The migrants are asking for humanitarian aid from international organizations. “We didn’t have much, but now we have nothing left,” said Alia. The Berges du Lac business district, home to diplomatic missions and international organizations, including the two United Nations agencies, has turned into a large stage of misery and suffering.
The Tunisian authorities accused the group that participated in the sit-in of attempting to “forcefully” enter the UNHCR premises and causing “significant damage,” as detailed in a statement by the Ministry of Interior. They further stated that the intervention was carried out at the request of the UN agency. “We denounce the recent incidents at our premises by a small group of protestors and urge all to engage with us in the search for meaningful and peaceful solutions,” stated Monica Noro, the agency’s representative in Tunis, in a statement on April 11.
Two people to review over 6,000 files
About 80 people were arrested during the operation, including 32 who will have to appear before a judge in the coming days, according to the NGO Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF, “Lawyers Without Borders”). “In a country where there is no reception infrastructure, no right to asylum and no access to fundamental rights, the UNHCR was supposed to be an institution of protection,” said Zeineb Mrouki of ASF. “Unfortunately, it has become the enemy of the people it is supposed to protect.”
In the absence of an asylum law, it is the UN agency that is supposed to handle the processing of applications and the granting of refugee status. Since 2019, with the increase in the number of applications, waiting times can reach several years. In November 2022, a senior official with the agency disclosed that only two people were tasked with reviewing over 6,000 cases.
On April 16, 2022, a group of around 100 refugees and asylum seekers protested in front of the UNHCR headquarters after occupying the premises of the UN agency in Zarzis, following their expulsion from a reception center in the nearby city of Médenine in the south. Even at that time, they were demanding their “evacuation,” claiming that their rights were not being respected and their safety was compromised.
This “evacuation” program does exist, but it is very selective: Only 76 people were able to benefit from it in 2021 in Tunisia. The decision regarding resettlement is made by resettlement countries, according to the agency’s website. Our source at UNHCR explained in November that this program is only available to the most vulnerable individuals, while reiterating that Tunisia is considered by the United Nations as a “safe country for asylum.”
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However, “the president’s speech showed us that there is a problem of racism and hate speech against Black people,” said Mrouki: “It is clear that Tunisia is not a safe country for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. The UNHCR must come up with solutions to address this situation.” As for the IOM, the head of ASF pointed out, that “since February 21, it has become a voluntary repatriation agency.”
* The first name has been changed.