A heat wave has rolled over Tunis on 1 June 2022, and the air is heavy, suffocating. But this has not dissuaded dozens of refugees and asylum seekers from carrying on with their sit-in outside the headquarters of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). A river of bodies spills onto either side of the street in this swanky neighborhood of the capital called Berges du Lac 1. Some protesters, their faces glimmering with beads of sweat, brandish posters and call out for « protection », « rights », « peace » and « resettlement ».

From Zarzis to Tunis, fingers are pointed at the UNHCR

From 15 April – 18 June 2022, hundreds of migrants camped out in make-shift tents erected using sheets of plastic and blankets spread across the sidewalk. Mattresses and squares of cardboard set atop the asphalt served as beds and pillows. Most of the sit-inners were young. Some played games under the shade of a garage. The elderly, women and children remained inside their tents. A number of kids kept busy on smartphones as women sat, absently looking on.

Refugees hold a sit-in outside the UNHCR, June 2022.

Rawah, an asylum-seeker from Sudan, is looking after the daughter of Bilen, from Eritrea, who has left to find food. Upset and unaware of any possible danger, the little girl chases after her mother. A few days earlier, a demonstrator who was crossing the street was hit and killed by an oncoming car.

Some 200 refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants participated in the protest outside the UNHCR headquarters in Tunis. This sit-in followed a similar demonstration held two months before outside the UN agency’s Zarzis office. Demonstrators accused the UNHCR of having abandoned them. Homeless and lacking any financial resources, they expressed their desire to leave Tunisia. Some indicated a preference for Europe or the United States. Since the protest, reports UNHCR protection agent Mike Sanderson, 160 out of the 200 sit-inners have been placed in safe housing, and 36 are waiting to be moved into a new shelter that is soon to open.

A perilous journey

For many, the camp-out in Berges du Lac I is the last stop-over on a journey that began years ago. Their final destination was never Tunisia, but Europe. Some were rescued at sea while crossing the Mediterranean.

Refugees hold a sit-in outside the UNHCR, June 2022.

Before setting out to sea, they had already traversed several countries. 20-year-old Omar from Eritrea crossed Sudan to arrive in Libya, where he remained for a year. He left the Libyan city Zouara and headed for Medenine in the south of Tunisia.

My time in Libya was hard. There, Libyans purchase and sell migrants to other Libyans. We were abused, hit, and deprived of our rights,

Omar recounts.

For Omar, Tunisia represented the gateway into Europe. He is not the only Eritrean under this illusion. Many who joined the sit-in were from this small country in the Horn of Africa. Under the authoritarian reign of president Isaias Afwerki, Eritrea is governed by repression. Life is unstable, and the country’s mandatory military service—with a term of unspecified duration—has caused the mass exodus of young Eritreans. In Tunisia, the percentage of Eritreans among asylum seekers rose from 16% in 2019 to 22% in 2021.

The situation is no better for many Sudanese. Four months ago, Saddam Bahaadine obtained refugee status in Tunisia. And yet his one hope is to leave the country. Traversing the borders of Nigeria, Algeria and Libya, he dreamed of setting sail for Europe. Tunisia was a transit country among others. Like Omar, he found himself « stuck » for several months in Libya, where he was held captive. He describes the same hellish conditions that Omar endured. Fifty-something Youssef Bechir, who introduces himself as a Touareg from the Libyan desert, also fled the country, along with his wife and four children. Bechir reports that he and his family left to escape the ravages of war in the Sahara.

According to the UNHCR, there were 9,703 refugees and asylum seekers in Tunisia as of 31 May 2022.

Many migrants, refugees and asylum seekers see Tunisia as a transit country on the route to Europe, owing to its proximity with Libya. Since the beginning of 2022, 100% of entries into Tunisia have been by sea, compared with only 33% in 2019. This choice to cross Libya in order to arrive in Sfax by sea— as opposed to crossing Algeria’s land borders—has intensified since 2020 along with the coups d’Etat in Mali and Burkina Faso, and with clashes between Burkina Faso forces and armed Islamist groups in the south of Mali.

Refugees hold a sit-in outside the UNHCR, June 2022

The safest crossing is thus via the south border of Niger or through Tchad in order to reach Libya, where the majority of migrants stop to work before eventually continuing on to Tunisia. Since the beginning of 2022, 87% of migrants who reported having passed through Libya affirm having experienced grave forms of violence such as acts of torture, sexual abuse or violent treatment while in detention.

Illusion and disillusion

Upon arriving in Tunisia, many refugees had hoped to find better living conditions thanks to the help of international organizations like the UNHCR. For the past two years, Youssef Bechir and his family have been living in a shelter provided by the UNHCR in Zarzis. Bechir was able to get a financial stipend of 350 dinars. This was also the case for Rawah from Sudan. In Zarzis, she received housing and a 250 dinar monthly stipend. But several months ago, the UN agency stopped providing such assistance, demonstrators reported to Nawaat.

They tell us to make do on our own, to look for work. I tried to work. I make one fourth of the Tunisian salary,

Omar relates with resentment.

Youssef Bechir reveals the scars on his stomach, which he explains prevent him from working. According to Romdhane Ben Amor who is spokesman for the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), the UNHCR has participated in diffusing an anti-migrant discourse which portrays migrants as lazy individuals who want permanent assistance:

The UN organization defends itself by justifying the limits of its services for budgetary reasons.

UN protection agent Mike Sanderson affirms for his part that :

The number of refugees, migrants and asylum seekers has increased dramatically in a very short time. Our budget has not followed this trend. We evaluate the vulnerability of each person upon his or her arrival. But one way or another, everyone is vulnerable. We have thus been obligated to make very difficult choices in order to determine which individuals are extremely vulnerable and require emergency assistance.

Sanderson added: « Those considered to be the most vulnerable are the elderly, women, women with children, survivors of difficult journeys who have experienced abuse or torture, children who have endured forced labor and/or abuse. We should never have to choose between them, but the budget is used as responsibly as possible. It’s a logical methodology, we have had to share a very little amount of money amongst many individuals ».

Refugees hold a sit-in outside the UNHCR, June 2022

Internationally, the management of refugees is highly political. A priority scale distinguishes among individuals. « UNHCR resources are centralized. They come from fundraising initiatives led by different countries and individual donors. The refugee crisis in Tunisia is very complicated. Unfortunately, however, such crises in other countries are more dire. It’s logical that countries like Ukraine and Afghanistan receive a greater portion of the budget, because they have more individuals to manage », Sanderson explains.

The international prioritization of different migrant cases is behind the current dilemma that refugees and asylum seekers face in Tunisia, Romdhane Ben Amor tells Nawaat. The FTDES spokesperson explains that the UNHCR office in Tunisia provoked this crisis in order to draw funders’ attention to its lack of budgetary resources. Even so, observes Ben Amor, such a motive is no excuse for the treatment that refugees have received: « They could have reduced their operational budget in order to focus aid on the beneficiaries to whom it was designated », he says disdainfully.

He also points a finger at the European Union. « European policy tends to delegate migration management to Tunisia, acting as if the country were safe for them. The goal is that boats carrying migrants rescued at sea no longer arrive at the ports at Lampedusa and Malta, but are instead directed towards Tunisian ports ».

Refugees hold a sit-in outside the UNHCR, June 2022

In the meantime, not only the Tunisian government but also international organizations are struggling to honor their commitments to migrants.

The UNHCR manages the flow of refugees and asylum seekers according to a quota system. And they do whatever they can to minimize the number of individuals registered with them,

laments Ben Amor.

Obtaining refugee status enables the beneficiary to access certain rights similar to those granted to Tunisian residents. These include freedom of movement and thought, as well as protection against torture and other degrading forms of treatment.

In collaboration with Tunisian authorities plus national and international partners such as Terre d’asile, the Arab Institute for Human Rights (AIHR) or the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the UNHCR generally facilitates access to health and education among other things,  Sanderson notes.

Tunisian civil society has long voiced demands for a national law on the right to asylum, however, Romdhane Ben Amor predicts that such legislation will not be a cure-all: « If we don’t update laws governing access to health, education and employment among other things, the right to asylum will remain in vain » he explains. Employment, which represents a form of socio-economic integration for refugees, is difficult for migrants to access within the formal sector.

Asylum seekers and refugees can’t legally access employment under Tunisian law. We are fighting for this to change. The process remains very long,

Mike Sanderson remarks.

Sanderson also points out that many migrants, asylum seekers and refugees do not have any official documents—another factor which impedes these individuals from benefiting from their rights.

To navigate all of these employment-related issues, on June 20 the UNHCR in partnership with the Tunisian Association for Social Management and Stability (TAMSS) launched the platform « FORAS.tn ». Designed for refugees looking for work in Tunisia, the resource is set up for users to upload their personal documents and peruse available employment opportunities. « It’s nothing but a pretty display hardly capable of hiding the tremendous structural issues which impact the management of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Tunisia », Ben Amor comments.