The situation has been extremely tense in the city of Sfax since the death of a Tunisian on Monday, after clashes with sub-Saharan migrants. Exiles saw their homes ransacked by young Tunisians. Several migrants were arrested in the process by the police. Hundreds of them, including women and children, were sent to the Libyan border, in a desert area, without water or food.
“I no longer dare go out. The situation here is very worrying”. Daouda*, a 22-year-old Ivorian migrant, is struggling to recover from his emotions. Sfax, the city in which he has lived for a year, in the center-east of Tunisia, was once again the scene of violent clashes.
The night from Tuesday July 4 to Wednesday July 5 was particularly tense in the Sakiet Eddaïer district. Since Sunday evening, the area has been shaken by violence between Tunisian residents and sub-Saharan migrants. Monday evening, the tension rose a notch with the death of a Tunisian, stabbed during clashes with exiles.
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A video showing the body of the victim lying on the ground sparked a torrent of reactions often with racist overtones. “We are going to avenge his death”, launched a group of young people during the funeral of the deceased on Tuesday according to images released by the Sayeb Trottoir collective which campaigns against illegal immigration in Sfax.
Tuesday evening, hundreds of residents gathered in the streets to demand the immediate departure of all irregular migrants, noted an AFP correspondent on the spot. Some blocked streets and set tires on fire. Others led punitive expeditions into homes inhabited by sub-Saharans.
Daouda witnessed scenes of looting. “From my window, I saw a group of young Tunisians suddenly enter my friends’ house. They assaulted them and ransacked everything inside. They stole phones, money, clothes, shoes… The police intervened but arrested the migrants”, explains the young man, still shocked.
Videos posted on social media show police officers chasing dozens of migrants from their homes to the cheers of city residents, before loading them into cars. In other images, migrants are seen lying on the ground, hands on their heads, surrounded by residents with sticks waiting for the arrival of the police.
On the Facebook page of the local group Sayeb Trottoir, Lazhar Neji, working in the emergency room of a hospital in Sfax, spoke of “an inhuman night (…) bloody which makes you tremble”. He assured that the hospital received between 30 and 40 migrants, including women and children. “Some were thrown from terraces, others attacked with swords,” he said.
The attackers seem to enjoy a certain impunity. According to Faouizi Masmoudi, spokesperson for the Sfax prosecutor’s office, contacted by InfoMigrants, 79 sub-Saharans have been placed in police custody since Sunday for “irregular stay” in Tunisia. On the other hand, no Tunisian was arrested in connection with the attacks.
Daouda does not understand this outburst of violence. Especially since he knows some people involved in the raids. “I usually give them money when they need it. Sometimes we stop in the neighborhood and talk. Right now, they are taking advantage of the chaos to attack us and steal our personal belongings,” he laments.
“They were sent to the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night”
Since Monday evening, hundreds of migrants arrested by the police have been piled into buses and sent to the desert, on the border between Libya and Tunisia, near the town of Ben Gardane, says Daouda. Remarks corroborated by testimonies received by the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW), and transmitted to InfoMigrants. HRW evokes hundreds of migrants concerned but it is still difficult to establish a precise assessment.
According to Daouda, the expelled exiles understood too late what was happening to them. “When the police stopped them, they reassured them that they were going to get them to safety. In reality, they were sent to the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night”, reports the Ivorian. Among them are several women, some of them pregnant, and children, including babies.
These expulsions are considered “disturbing” by the special envoy of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the Mediterranean. “Any country can expel under certain conditions foreign nationals who are illegally on its territory, but this situation does not respond to any form of due process”, declares Vincent Cochetel on his Twitter page.
In photos and videos obtained by InfoMigrants, you can see dozens of people lost, sitting on the ground, under the hot Tunisian sun, without access to water or food. Some have traces of blows on the body. “We don’t know where we are now… we don’t know where to go,” said a sub-Saharan man, completely helpless.
Difficult for the repressed to go back. According to Daouda, public transport refuses to take black people on board and taxis charge hundreds of euros for long journeys. “People can’t afford to pay. All they can do is walk. But it will take them several days to return to Sfax”.
For his part, Daouda moved in with a friend, in another neighborhood, spared from the violence. And the young man does not intend to return home immediately. “A Tunisian told me the other evening that, for my safety, I had to leave the neighborhood”. For the young man, the only solution is to take the sea to Italy, about 150 km away. “Anyway, with what is happening, even if you had no idea of going to Europe, you do it”.
*Name has been changed