“If we stay here we are going to die.”
Testimonies from refugees in Tunisia about their protest sit-in at the UNHCR in Tunis and its violent eviction
by the Alarm Phone network
26 April 2023 (original post)
Introduction: Ongoing refugee protests in Tunisia
On 11 April 2023, the refugees and migrants carrying out a sit-in in front of the offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the Tunisian capital of Tunis were violently evicted by the police. For nearly a month, around 250 people had been holding a peaceful occupation to demand evacuation to a safe country, as their living conditions in Tunisia had become unbearable. Due to the threats posed to the lives of Black migrants and refugees in Tunisia in the past months, they had turned to the UNHCR for protection. The UNHCR, however, failed to support them with even the most basic necessities, such as food, water, and shelter, and further escalated the situation by calling the police to evict the protesters’ camp.
During the eviction, the police attacked people (including children) with tear gas, causing serious injuries. According to the protesters present, up to 150 people were arrested and brought to the police station, out of whom seventy were released immediately. More people were arrested over the next few days, and several are still imprisoned. They are accused of “extreme violence against a public official while exercising his profession, disobedience […] and willfully harming the property of others” (unofficial translation). The people who were detained reported having been subjected to beatings and torture with electroshock.
The UNHCR’s neglect of refugees and the agency’s contribution to the violence faced by people in exile has also been documented in other countries. Refugees in Libya have been denouncing the UNHCR’s inaction in this conflict-ridden country for years. In Tunisia itself, the mistreatment of refugees and migrants by the UNHCR has a long history. Last year, for instance, refugees and migrants issued a statement calling out the agency, denouncing that the “UNHCR completely marginalizes us, abuses us, and behaves in an inhumane way.”
The sit-in in front of the UNHCR and the ongoing violent escalation
Since late February 2023, up to 250 people have been protesting in front of the offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Tunisia’s capital of Tunis. They are calling for their evacuation from the North African country. After the racist speech of president Kais Saied on 21 February, racism has escalated in the country. Increasing numbers of Black people have been verbally and physically attacked, robbed of their belongings, fired from their jobs, and evicted by their landlords. In addition, many have been arbitrarily detained by the security forces, several of whom remain in prison without any legal assistance. The president’s appeal to the paranoid, racist bogeyman discourse of “ethnic substitution” triggered the implementation of discriminatory laws which had not been strictly enforced for years. One example is a decree that prohibits so-called undocumented persons from renting houses.
In a comment, the Tunisian academic Haythem Guesmi on Al Jazeera observed that the “president’s blatantly racist comments triggered a wave of violence and abuse against thousands of Black Africans who reside, study and work in Tunisia, as well as Black Tunisian citizens who make up some 10 percent of the country’s population,” and that on “social media, racist accounts moved to amplify Saied’s divisive message using xenophobic rhetoric and started encouraging mob violence against “criminal” Black Africans.”
M.’s testimony outlines some of the consequences of the President’s speech, such as arbitrary detention by Tunisian security forces.
M. was put in jail for twenty-one days.
A., one of the protesters in front of the UNHCR, sheds light on how people affected by the president’s speech organized in its aftermath:
E., also part of the sit-in, adds:
The people who were rendered homeless following the unleashing of this violence in Tunisia gathered in front of the office of the IOM in late February. A. explains:
For the duration of the occupation in front of the agency the protesters did not receive any support from the UNHCR – despite the fact that the agency describes itself as “dedicated to saving lives and protecting the rights of refugees, forcibly displaced communities and stateless people.” A. clarifies:
Not only did UNHCR staff fail to respond to the needs of people living on the sidewalk in front of their offices asking for their protection and evacuation: they also threatened the refugees, such as when a member of the local UNHCR staff told the protesters that they are all going to die in Tunisia.
This sit-in, which took place from March to April 2023, is not the first protest led by migrants and refugees which denounces the living conditions of Black people, especially foreigners, in Tunisia and calls on the UNHCR to take action. In 2022, a group of people had been living and protesting on that same street facing the UNHCR offices for four months demanding evacuation. Their protest was also brutally repressed by the security forces. Remaining subservient to the political will of European countries, and neglecting its responsibility towards the refugees’ demand of evacuation, the UNHCR had at the time only provided the protesters with the option of moving to an overcrowded and poorly serviced shelter on the outskirts of Tunis. Almost one year later, the children hosted in this shelter are still not going to school, and no kind of protection has been granted to the people who are forced to remain living there.
According to the figures of the UNHCR, out of a population of nearly 10,000 forcibly displaced persons currently living in Tunisia, only twenty people were resettled to safe third countries in 2022. Despite the rise in violence against Black communities during this first half of 2023, only two people have been resettled this year. Moreover, the figure provided by the UNHCR for the number of forcibly displaced persons present in the country does not take into account Black foreigners living in Tunisia without documents legalizing their stay, but who are nevertheless in need of protection. Many of them report not being able to regularize their status due to inadequate and kafkaesque legal procedures. As a consequence of this bureaucratic nightmare, many have no access to their basic rights.
This year, these same people once again came together with others to demand their evacuation from Tunisia in front of the UNHCR headquarters. In A.’s words:
In addition to the inhumane conditions in the self-organized camp, the protesters faced violence from local residents on multiple occasions. They were assaulted by citizens armed with sticks. At the end of March, a Yemeni child was deliberately run down by a car, breaking her leg. In order to attempt to secure a minimum level of protection, the protesters blocked the street of the sit-in: “That is why we closed the street, only leaving a small way for people walking by us.” [S., 18 April 2023] In speaking about the attack against the girl, A. adds: “the place [in front of the UNHCR] is not big. So people like to sleep, ok. So they sleep, they close, because they are many.” [15 April 2023]
Heavy, week-long rains at the beginning of April further worsened the conditions of the sit-in.
The violent eviction by the Tunisian police and torture of those imprisoned
On 11 April 2023, the camp was violently evicted by police forces, causing injuries and leading to the arrest of around 150 people. The situation had already been amped up by the police on Monday 10 April, who came to the camp and assaulted the protesters. The attacks on the 10th are documented in several videos:
On 10 April, the police attacked the crowd (made up of both adults and children) with tear gas. “They are using tear gas on us! We are not safe in this country. They are fighting us!”, can be heard in one of the videos. A person can be seen struggling to breathe, disoriented by the gas, while another continues to scream “Oh God, help us, we are not safe in this country!” In another video, the police chases the protesters:
The day after, 11 April 2023, the police arrived in the morning. According to the spokesperson for the Tunisian Ministry of the Interior, Faker Bouzghaya, the police intervened “at the request of the UNHCR”.
A. reports that “The police arrived at 9am in the morning. They provoked the protesters who at a certain point could not resist their provocations anymore” [13 April 2023]. In an interview two days later, he explained in more detail how the situation escalated:
In an interview two days later, he highlighted the situation of the children:
E. describes the consequences of the tear gas attack:
According to A.’s testimony, the people abandoned the area in front of the UNHCR building after three to five minutes. Under heavy attack by the police, the protesters fled to the nearby building of the IOM, where other refugees and migrants were also holding a sit-in.
The people discussed what to do:
Lacking other options and still looking for safety while trying to highlight the fact that Tunisia is not safe for them, the protesters decide to turn towards the American embassy, around four kilometers away from the UNHCR building in a neighborhood called Lac II. A. explains:
After the eviction, the camp’s basic infrastructure was completely destroyed. Some managed to flee, but around 150 people were arrested by the police. An article in the Middle East Eye was the first to inform the public about these events.
In addition to the violence of the eviction, it is important to highlight the violence faced by the people who were detained. Several of those imprisoned reported incidents of torture and mistreatment. Phones, money, and ID cards were taken by the police. Those who have been released reported not having been given back their money and phones. ID cards were returned only after a few days. Not only is it in people’s rights to get these documents back, but withholding them renders them more vulnerable to police violence, as they need their documents to prove their legal status in Tunisia.
E. was tortured after having been arrested. He testifies:
S. also testifies about mistreatment from the Tunisian security forces:
After the attack, in the night from Tuesday 11 April to Wednesday 12 April, the police returned to the IOM camp once more. Using counterinsurgency strategies – namely the targeted identification and arrest of the group’s ‘leaders’ – they tried to weaken the protest:
On Twitter, the Refugees in Tunisia summarize what has happened thus:
How the UNHCR mistreat those seeking safety
The UNHCR’s Tunis representatives have not to this day accepted to be interviewed nor to provide details about these recent events. As reported on local television, according to the spokesperson of the Tunisian Interior Ministry, the UNHCR filed the complaint against the persons protesting in front of their building which led to the violent eviction. In the UNHCR press release from 11 April 2023, the UN Refugee Agency states that
Especially Monica Noro, the UNHCR’s Tunis representative, urges in this press release “to engage with us in the search for meaningful and peaceful solutions, as repeatedly proposed since the start of the demonstration.” This contradicts the testimonies of the protesters, one of whom sums up the situation as follows:
The UNHCR has been neglecting migrants for a long time, not in Tunisia alone, but also in other countries. Time and again, the people concerned have resisted. For instance, in Morocco, Niger, Egypt, Sudan, and Libya, protests took place to demand the UNHCR to listen to them and adhere to their agency’s mandate. Time and again, however, it came down to the same outcome: the UNHCR pretended to listen but did nothing, continued its neglect and escalated the situation to the point of repression carried out by the UNHCR staff or by the national authorities that had been called in. This is now being repeated in Tunisia – and shows that this neglect is systematic.
UNHCR’s core mandate is to ensure the protection of refugees, returnees, and stateless persons. The number of those to be protected under this mandate has increased in recent decades. The commitment to protect, however, has made room for state and security-centred approaches. The UNHCR has become part of the regime containing and managing migration through state funds and is an actor in the outsourcing of European migration control and the asylum procedures outside of the EU.
The shift in the interest that UNHCR pursues is associated with its funding and the severe loss of political pressure that it can exert on state and non-state actors to uphold refugees’ rights. Moreover, this shift of interest is also linked to the inherent problem of the resettlement program, one of UNHCR’s flagship programs. Once again, the resettlement program is aligned with the interests of states – and European countries are hardly willing to take in refugees – thus often remaining empty promises. In Tunisia, the UNHCR is not pushing the refugees’ demand for resettlement as the agency still considers Tunisia to be a safe country for most refugees despite the president’s speech and the racist violence that it unleashed.
A., who has been in Tunisia for four years and has a refugee card from the UNHCR, learnt first hand about these practices of non-assistance:
In another testimony, another protester named A. explains the UNHCR’s praxis in Tunisia:
L. also underlines the long waiting periods involved in interactions with the UNHCR, explaining that
In sum, the protesters highlight their experiences of non-assistance by the UNHCR. A. summarizes the protest and its eviction thus:
He also sheds light on the perception of the eviction in Tunisian social media, which very much focused on spreading videos of the cars that were being damaged by the protesters while attempting to defend themselves from the police, instead of explaining the circumstances that led people to protest in front of the UNHCR, and the escalation of violence due to the UNHCR’s lack of assistance. The UNHCR reinforced this negative image of the protesters by describing them in official communication as “violent,” urging for a “deescalation of tensions.” It is in fact the other way round, according to A.:
The current situation
To date – 26 April 2023 – dozens of people are still camping in front of the IOM with no solution in sight. Some of them asked for repatriation, worried that the evacuation will not happen, while also being urged by the IOM to leave the streets and the country given the current context. While some are waiting for answers about their repatriation, others are simply waiting for the opportunity to make some money and leave on their own accord.
In the absence of legal ways to leave Tunisia, people are left with travel options that will expose them to serious risks, be it trying to reach Italy via the Mediterranean, or a neighboring country (Algeria or Libya). Others continue to fight for their evacuation, as they cannot stay in Tunisia. This is especially the case for the leaders of the protest, many of whom were targeted for arrest, and the rest of whom fear criminalization. At least thirty people who were imprisoned by the police the day of the eviction of the occupation are still awaiting their trial. Their relatives, children, and friends are anxiously waiting for them. On 24 April, fifteen people were temporarily released thanks to the efforts of civil society organizations.
Looking back on the past months, A. states:
The Refugees in Tunisia continue to call for evacuation and support:
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