Migrants forced from Tunisia port into desert: witnesses

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Hundreds of African migrants were stranded in dire conditions in a desert area of southern Tunisia on Thursday after being expelled from the port city of Sfax, witnesses told AFP.

Racial tensions flared this week into violence targeting migrants from sub-Saharan African countries, with dozens fleeing the city or being forcibly evicted.

“I came because I’d heard that human rights were respected in Tunisia, but what is happening shows that this is not the case,” said 27-year-old Issa Kone, from Mali.

The unrest erupted after the funeral of a 41-year-old Tunisian man who was stabbed to death Monday in Sfax in an altercation between locals and migrants.

Three suspects were subsequently arrested, all from Cameroon.

The stabbing lit a powder keg, with residents saying they are fed up with the presence of migrants in the city, where many gather before setting out in makeshift boats for Europe.

Sfax, the North African country’s second-largest city, is a departure point for many hoping to reach EU member Italy by sea, often the island of Lampedusa about 130 kilometres (80 miles) away.

Tunisia has seen a rise in racially motivated attacks after President Kais Saied in February accused “hordes” of undocumented migrants of bringing violence and alleging a “criminal plot” to change the country’s demographic make-up.

NGOs say hundreds of migrants have been taken in buses to desert areas in southern Tunisia, some near the border with Libya and others close to the frontier with Algeria, two countries from which many migrants have crossed in.

“We have nothing to eat or drink. We are in the desert,” Kone told AFP by telephone.

“National guard agents caught us in Sfax after breaking into our house,” he said.

Videos shared on social media showed police chasing dozens of migrants from their homes to the cheers of Tunisian residents, before loading them into police cars.

Kone said he was taken by bus to near the Algerian border with around a dozen other migrants he had been living with in Sfax.

  • Europe dream shattered –

Before going to Tunisia, where he made a living doing odd jobs, Kone worked for two years in Libya before unrest there made him leave.

According to Kone and other witnesses, at least 1,000 migrants found themselves stranded and destitute in the desert on Thursday after being forced out of Sfax.

Another Malian, 31-year-old Mamadou Dembele, thought he was on his way to realising his dream of reaching Europe when the boat taking him towards Italy along with 46 other migrants was intercepted on Wednesday by the Tunisian coastguard off Sfax.

Now he finds himself in the desert in southern Tunisia after being taken there with other African migrants by Tunisian security forces.

Dembele said he came to Tunisia five months ago, aiming to make an attempt to reach Europe, and does not want to go back to Algeria from where he crossed the border illegally.

“I stayed in Algeria for six months to try to get to Europe from there, but that didn’t work. So I came to try my luck from Tunisia instead,” he said.

“There is conflict in Mali — that’s why I left. I wanted to get to Europe to work so I could help my family.”

Apart from those forcibly taken into the desert, dozens of migrants, fearing reprisals from angry locals, flocked on Wednesday and Thursday to Sfax railway station to leave for other Tunisian cities.

“The day before yesterday I was sleeping. I don’t know who it was, but Arabs came into the house and ransacked the place,” Souleymane Diallo, 28, from Guinea told AFP while in custody in Sfax on Thursday.

“I got here yesterday at 6:00 am. I want to go to the IOM (International Organization for Migration) and to the embassy of Guinea-Conakry” in Tunis, he said.

“I just want to go back to my own country. That’s my destination.”

©️ Agence France-Presse

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