TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Migrants in the Tunisian port city of Sfax aiming to make Europe their new home now share the burden and blame for escalating tensions deeply tinged with racism, amid fears of European leaders trying to stem the number of people arriving on their shores.
The antagonism that erupted this month in Sfax between Tunisians and mainly black sub-Saharan migrants is widely seen as a turning point in the way the North African nation deals with migration – and an opportunity for Europe to seize.
Hundreds of migrants have drowned at sea trying to reach Italy in flimsy boats, but now migrants waiting for their chance to cross the Mediterranean are cowering in fear, some beaten or transported by authorities to new destinations, others thrown into the desert.
A meeting this week in Tunis of human rights activists from North Africa, West Africa and Europe denounced a summit on migration this Sunday in Rome, saying its aim is to pursue an anti-migrant vision and impose on Africa the responsibility to protect European borders from African arrivals. Human Rights Watch also denounced the upcoming Rome rally, predicting it will amount to a barter of securities for financial incentives to keep migrants away from European shores.
“Today, the vocation of the Mediterranean is no longer to be a bridge between two shores, but a wall separating all of Europe from the entire African continent,” said the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, which organized Thursday’s meeting.
Italy is trying to reduce the number of migrant arrivals and stabilize Tunisia, in its worst economic crisis in a generation. Thousands of migrants have arrived in Sfax this year, but there are no precise figures on their number in the city or how many have left since the anti-migrant campaign began.
Tunisia has become the main stepping stone to Italy, the gateway to Europe, replacing Libya, where widespread abuses against migrants have been reported. Of the 76,325 migrants who arrived in Italy since the beginning of the year until last Sunday, 44,151 took the sea route from Tunisia compared to 28,842 from Libya, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
President Kais Saied, Tunisia’s increasingly authoritarian leader, sparked racist backlash against migrants in February, saying sub-Saharans arriving in large numbers were part of a plot to erase Tunisia’s Islamic identity. He has since attempted to backtrack on those statements, denying allegations of racism and saying the issue of migrants needs to be addressed at the root.
This is one of the objectives of the Rome conference, which will bring together nearly 20 heads of state and government or ministers from the Middle East to the Sahel and North Africa, as well as the head of the European Union Ursula von der Leyen and a range of financial institutions.
The one-day summit is part of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s efforts to position Italy at the center of issues affecting the Mediterranean. The conference aims to come up with concrete proposals to reduce the number of migrants by addressing the root causes, while combating migrant smuggling. It will also address energy policies, including ways to diversify energy sources, and climate change.
It is widely seen by human rights advocates as a roadmap for what is to come.
The Rome summit comes a week after Saied signed a memorandum of understanding for a “comprehensive strategic partnership” at a meeting that included Meloni and von der Leyen. It would include nearly one billion euros ($1.1 billion) to help revive Tunisia’s stunted economy and would include 100 million euros ($111 million) for border control as well as search and rescue missions at sea and the repatriation of immigrants without residence permits.
Despite signing the agreement, the Tunisian president has stressed in the past that Tunisia will not become Europe’s border guard or serve as a resettlement land. On July 11, he proposed a full-fledged conference, saying that the solution to the migration issue must deal with the causes and not the consequences.
Human rights organizations say bartering money for lives is a betrayal of values. For some opponents, such agreements are a new form of neo-colonialism.
Ahead of the Rome summit, New York-based Human Rights Watch denounced such deals as “an abusive, ill-conceived, and (a) short-sighted strategy.”
“The EU risks not only perpetuating (human rights abuses), but also emboldening repressive leaders, who can boast of warmer relations with European partners while taking credit for securing financial support for their failing economies.”
With high hopes shattered, migrants tremble in fear of the anti-migrant backlash that has forced many to leave their shelters in Sfax and take buses to parts unknown.
Security forces had dumped around 500 migrants in the desert area bordering Libya earlier this month, but they were transferred on July 10 to other parts of Tunisia, according to the Red Crescent.
Some have been forgotten.
Libyan border guards said on June 16 they found at least six men, women and children stranded in temperatures above 40°C (104°F) in the past few days. This adds to a group they encountered that day, when they rescued a group of migrants, including women and children, who had huddled in the scorching desert for several days near the Al Assa border crossing, about 15 kilometers (nine miles) from the Libya-Tunisia border. The scene was filmed by the Associated Press.
Musa Khalid from Congo, recounting the group’s plight, said Tunisian officials took their belongings and money before transferring them out of Sfax and dumping them without food or water.
“As we tried again to enter Tunisia, they beat us badly. They broke my hand and hit me on the head… We have been in the desert for several days now. Mister Please.”
“There are people affected as a result of cruelty and beatings… by Tunisian border guards,” said Al-Assa Desert Border Guard Commander Major Ayman Al-Qadri, cautiously adding that he was quoting the migrants’ statements.
Elaine Ganley reported from Paris. Colleen Barry contributed to this report from Milan.