Tunisian coast guards involved in the sinking of migrants south of the Sahara

More and more testimonies are reporting that the Tunisian coast guards have used violent practices against migrants seeking to board the boats to leave Tunisia, where the climate of racism against sub-Saharan Africans is pushing many exiles to flee the country.

Confiscated engines, canoes left adrift, dangerous maneuvers causing panic on board… Testimonies of violent practices by the Tunisian coast guards against migrants trying to reach Europe on makeshift boats have multiplied since the fierce speech by President Kaïs Saïed held in February, aimed at these exiles south of the Sahara.

In several cases recently reported by the InfoMigrants website (the media in which participates), shipwrecks as a result of this violence have caused the death of several migrants, including young children who have boarded these makeshift canoes on their way to the European coasts.

On June 22, a boat carrying 97 people capsized off Sfax in central-eastern Tunisia. Only about twenty migrants were rescued. According to one of the few survivors, whose story InfoMigrants collected from the Cameroonian Association of the Diaspora in Tunisia (Acadit), the Tunisian coast guards sent “tear gas” into the boat, causing panic on board and the sinking of the canoe.

“Coast guards circled the boat to make waves”

This Cameroonian mother lost her 5-year-old son during this tragedy. She says that “the coast guards circled the boat to make waves. And then they threw tear gas into the boat several times. There was a movement of panic and the boat turned”. On board the same boat with her two twins, another woman reported that one of her children died in the wreck.

“When they (border guards) touch the water, people panic and the boat capsizes. They can save some people, but they can’t get everyone out,” Kalilou, an Ivorian migrant, told InfoMigrants in April.

Other exiles in contact with this specialized editorial office arrange for the authorities to sometimes steal the engines of the canoes and let them drift in the open sea. A particularly dangerous method of interception, which is already used by the Libyan coast guards off their coasts to stop the migration route.

Contacted by and InfoMigrants, the maritime guards in Sfax did not want to answer our journalists’ questions.

Financial support from France and the EU

The testimonies of these abuses off the coast of Tunisia confirm the alarms launched by NGOs and humanitarian associations already in December.

About fifty of them had then condemned in a forum the violence of the Tunisian coast guards during the interceptions in the Mediterranean, which provoked “batons, shots in the air or in the direction of the engine, knife attacks, dangerous maneuvers to try to sink the boats, asking for money in return for a rescue…”

According to these NGOs, “these attacks have accelerated in the last months (of 2022), targeting both migrants, whether they are Tunisian or foreign”.

🆘~200 people in need at #Kerkennah! We were informed that the Tunisian Coast Guard attacked 5 boats trying to escape from #Tunisia and stole their engines. ~200 people are left adrift while the Coast Guard watches! In Tunisia, black people are being attacked, on land and at sea! pic.twitter.com/p6eP5fOl0Z

— Alarm Phone (@alarm_phone) March 9, 2023

In this forum, these organizations also stated that they did not consider Tunisia a safe landing place for exiles rescued in the Mediterranean and asked the EU “to withdraw the agreements” made with the Tunisian authorities in the fight against immigration.

Since then, in mid-June, an envelope of 105 million euros has been promised by the European Commission to support Tunisia in the fight “against irregular immigration”. This is in addition to the grant from France of almost 26 million euros, which the Minister of the Interior, Gérald Darmanin, announced with great fanfare in Tunis on 19 June.

Kaïs Saïed repeats his anti-migrant remarks

Tunisia is facing a spectacular increase in boat departures from its shores to Europe. Crossings of the central Mediterranean increased by almost 300% between January and May 2023, according to the European border monitoring agency Frontex. The highest numbers ever since 2019.

“The vast majority of departures from the African coast since the beginning of 2023 are linked to the situation in Tunisia”, explains to Matthieu Tardis, co-director of the specialized research center Synergies migrations. “The rise of anti-black racism against sub-Saharan migrants, supported by President Kaïs Saïed’s speech and followed by violence against migrants present in the country, hastened their departure for Europe”.

“Since November, we have noticed more arrivals of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa than Tunisians (by the Tunisian route)”, “safer than the Libyan route because it is shorter”, also notes a spokesman for the Organization for Migration (OMI) ), Flavio Di Giacomo to AFP. A phenomenon that, according to him, is due to “the strong discrimination that migrants from Africa south of the Sahara suffer from in Tunisia, from which they therefore flee”.

A phenomenon that should not work given the recent resignation of the Tunisian president. Kaïs Saïed repeated on Monday his opposition to the presence of migrants south of the Sahara, going so far as to speak this time about migrants “terrorizing” Tunisian citizens. In February, he said the presence of “hordes” of illegal immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa was a source of “violence and crime” in his country.

A speech that comes a day after demonstrations hostile to migrants in Sfax, one of the main departure cities for illegal crossings to Europe, and as evidence of attacks on sub-Saharan migrants is mounting.

Shipwrecks on the way and increasingly fragile boats

At the same time, the use of cheaper but much more fragile boats has made crossings of the Mediterranean more dangerous. The smugglers now use “metal boxes built in less than a day on the beaches for around 1,000 euros each”, InfoMigrants further reveals.

To cross the #Mediterranean from Tunisia 🇹🇳, migrants now use metal canoes.

Less stable, they cause many shipwrecks.

Explanations ⤵ pic.twitter.com/aoE2G0Xg5v

— French InfoMigrants (@InfoMigrants_fr) May 12, 2023

These poorly welded boats, especially borrowed from Tunisia, are even more unstable than long wooden or rubber boats, which are already very dangerous in the Mediterranean waves. Only 20 centimeters “separate the migrants from the water. At the first wave that arrives on the boat, it sinks immediately”, warns Jean Janssen, of the Mediterranean rescue NGO ResQship.

These boats also contribute both to the sharp increase in departures and to the increase in shipwrecks. For the tragic shipwreck on June 22, InfoMigrants estimates the death toll at around seventy. On June 9, the bodies of nine sub-Saharan Africans who left the town of Teboulba were found in the Mediterranean. Before that, more than 70 migrants died near the Tunisian coast after a series of shipwrecks in April.

The Tunisian National Guard claims to have rescued or intercepted 14,406 people, including 13,138 from sub-Saharan Africa, during the first three months of 2023.

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