The United Nations said Thursday it was deeply concerned for the safety of hundreds of migrants stranded in Tunisia following their removal to remote parts of the North African country.
The UN said an “unfolding tragedy” was taking place with migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers surviving in dire conditions near the frontiers with Libya and Algeria, while others have been pushed across the border.
Many were displaced from Tunisia’s second city Sfax following recent unrest, while others were relocated from various urban centres, the UN said.
Earlier this month, as Sfax was rocked by racial violence, authorities loaded hundreds of migrants onto buses and left them stranded in remote desert areas near Algeria and Libya.
The NGO Human Rights Watch said up to 1,200 Africans were “expelled or forcibly transferred” to the border regions.
“Among those stranded are women (including some who are pregnant) and children,” the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, said in a joint statement.
“They are stuck in the desert, facing extreme heat, and without access to shelter, food or water. There is an urgent need to provide critical, life-saving humanitarian assistance while urgent, humane solutions are found.
“Tragically, there are already reports of the loss of life among the group. UNHCR and IOM are deeply saddened by this situation.
“This unfolding tragedy needs to end.”
The UN agencies said saving lives had to be the priority and those stranded must be brought to safety.
“Search and rescue efforts are urgently needed for those who remain stranded on both sides of the border,” they said.
The agencies urged countries involved to uphold their legal obligations.
Those with international protection needs must be identified and given the chance to seek asylum, they added, with vulnerable migrants such as trafficking victims and lone children, needed referring to the appropriate services.
Tunisia has become a major gateway for irregular migrants and asylum-seekers attempting the perilous sea voyages in often rickety boats in the hopes of a better life in Europe.
The distance between Sfax and Italy’s Lampedusa island is about 130 kilometres (80 miles).