Geneva – Tunisian authorities and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees must work to find a just and dignified solution to the plight of more than 250 refugees and asylum-seekers, including about 60 children, who have been stuck in the country for years, Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor said in a statement.
Several refugees and asylum seekers stranded in Tunisia told Euro-Med Monitor that their living conditions have deteriorated in an unprecedented manner since their expulsion from accommodation centres and being cut off from the UNHCR financial aid they had been receiving. Most of them are now homeless, unable to get jobs or access to many basic services.
One refugee provided Euro-Med Monitor with a notice sent by the UNHCR and the Tunisian Refugee Council to a number of refugees in the country, which said: "Pursuant to the procedures of the UNHCR and the Tunisian Council for Refugees, we are notifying you to vacate your dormitory/home within a period not exceeding 15 days. Failure to comply with this notification will result in legal action".
The notice stated that the refugees would receive a financial grant of 250 Tunisian dinars per month for three months and "a referral to the Tunisian Association for Management and Social Stability to obtain job opportunities".
A copy of a notice, Euro-Med Monitor obtained from a refugee, demanding refugees vacate their shelters
These difficult living conditions prompted refugees and asylum seekers to organize a sit-in this past February in the southeastern city of Zarzis, as well as another one this month outside the UNHCR Tunisia main office in the country’s capital in an attempt to pressure the government to put an end to their suffering.
Those stranded in Tunisia should be provided with urgent aid, including basic life necessities, and their inalienable rights should be respected without regard to any other considerations.
Most of the refugees and asylum seekers stuck in Tunisia are from Sudan, Mali, Somalia, Chad, and Ethiopia. Following failed attempts to migrate from Libya via the Mediterranean Sea, they were ultimately smuggled into Tunisia through its land border with Libya and are now subjected to detention and ill-treatment there.
"I migrated from Sudan to Libya and was imprisoned there more than once”, said sit-in participant Al-Rashid Omar. “I tried to migrate across the Mediterranean, but I did not succeed. I arrived in Tunisia in 2018, but I did not know I was going to end up in this terrible condition.
"Years ago, the UNHCR used to provide us with accommodation in central Tunis and $70 per month, but the financial aid was suspended in January. They [also] notified us that we have to leave the accommodation centres, so we staged a sit-in outside the UNHCR office in the city of Zarzis."
Another refugee told Euro-Med Monitor: "We were surprised at the beginning of the year that aid was cut off and that we were expelled from our homes, although there are children, women, and patients [in need of care] among us."
He also said that Tunisian security forces assaulted protesting refugees and asylum seekers in Zarzis and restricted their right of movement in order to prevent them from staging the sit-in in the capital. Refugees managed to reach the capital via side roads, however, and were in fact able to stage the sit-in there.
"We have suffered from racism and marginalization during the past years, and now we are calling for our evacuation from Tunisia”, said the refugee. “We no longer trust the UNHCR after cutting off aid benefits and expelling us from our accommodation. We are asking to be evicted to a third country".
Dire consequences may arise from continuing to ignore these refugees and asylum seekers who are stranded in Tunisia. In addition to the sharp deterioration in their inhumane living conditions, they are in danger of falling victim to crime and human trafficking, as they are among the most vulnerable groups.
UNHCR Tunisia should not have cut off their financial aid and expelled refugees from accommodation centres, particularly in light of the lack of alternative measures that could help them live a decent life.
Youssef Salem, legal researcher at Euro-Med Monitor, said: "It is not acceptable in any way to deny the rights of refugees protected under international law. It is the responsibility of the Tunisian authorities to respect their legal obligations under the conventions they ratified, such as the Geneva Convention of 1951 and its 1967 Protocol, and the Convention against Torture in 1984, which stipulates the non-refoulement of refugees and asylum seekers and the provision of protection for all refugees and asylum seekers on its territory."
The UNHCR must provide clear explanations regarding the allegations of suspending aid and assistance to refugees and asylum seekers stranded in Tunisia, work vigorously to provide humanitarian support to those who desperately need it, and assess refugees' legal situations to end their suffering.
Tunisian authorities must also investigate allegations that security personnel attacked refugees during the Zarzis sit-in, deal responsibly with the crisis of refugees and asylum seekers who have been sitting in for over three months now, provide them with protection and other forms of essential humanitarian support, and help them decide their fate in a way that guarantees them a dignified life.