”If we stay here we are going to die”

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“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

Refugees protesting in front of the UNHCR headquarters in Tunis, March 2023

1. Introduction: Ongoing refugee protests in Tunisia

On April 11, 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 which 70 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 marginalises us, abuses us, and behaves in an inhumane way”.

2. 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 Organisation 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 February 21, 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 which 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, 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. “Life was already difficult before the 21st of February 2023, but the situation has worsened. After the racist statement of the president […] I was leaving my work and a National Guard Officer arrested me, arbitrarily. I was simply walking, I didn’t do anything wrong. I showed him my refugee card from the UNHCR but he arrested me anyway. He took me to a police station then, and the next morning they took me to the court without explaining anything to me or giving me any reasons. I tried to tell them again and again that I had my papers, that I had my card from the UNHCR with me […].” [in April] M. was put in jail for 21 days.

A., one of the protesters in front of the UNHCR, sheds light on how people affected by the President’s speech organised in its aftermath: “After Kais Saied’s speech on February 21, we contacted some refugees and migrants in Tunisia to speak about what is going on here. Many people have lost their jobs, their homes. We made a WhatsApp group because we needed more ideas about what to do. We discussed that we needed to go to the UNHCR to find some solutions for us. Because you know, there is hate speech everywhere, people arrested us.” [15.04.23]

E., also part of the sit-in, adds: “I came in front of UNHCR because I was attacked following the discourse of the president. Some took the chance to rob and attack us. Some Tunisians stole everything in our house in Ariana [a peripheral neighbourhood north of Tunis]. They were more than 50 boys. They were armed with stones and sticks. This is why I came here in front of UNHCR, for protection because my wife is pregnant and needs protection. Our safety is not guaranteed in Tunisia. We cannot stay here.” [14.04.23]

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: “We go to the IOM camp, because it is a safe area. We stay there, maybe one week. After one week, too much people joined us, refugees and immigrants. We discuss among us, we need to go to the UNHCR. Because the IOM is especially for those who like to go back to their homes, for those wanting to be resettled to their countries. But we need a future. We don’t want to go back to our homes. We discuss and people accept ‘We like to go over there, we need to find other solution, we need the UNHCR to find any solution for us, especially evacuation’. We go over there, to the UNHCR, we stay.” [15.04.23]

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: “They did not help us. Never. They don’t like to do anything for us. They don’t like us to stay over there. They did not give us water, food, nothing, nothing. We could not use the toilet, nothing. Even women, no one.” [15.04.23]

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 20 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: “Every time we come to make noise, we say ‘We need evacuation! Evacuation!’ So that every time people know what is going on. Everybody needs information, so that everybody tells their friends what is going on here in Tunisia.”

In addition to the inhumane conditions in the self-organised 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 protestors blocked the street of the sit-in: “That is why we closed the street, only leaving a small way for people walking us.” [S., 18.04.23] 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.” [15.04.23] Heavy, week-long rains at the beginning of April further worsened the conditions of the sit-in. 

3. The violent eviction by the Tunisian police and torture of those imprisoned

On April 11, 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, April 10, who came to the camp and assaulted the protesters. The attacks on the 10th are documented in several videos:

On April 10, 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, April 11, 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”.

  1. reports: “The police arrived at 9am in the morning. They provoked the protesters who at a certain point could not resist their provocations anymore.” [13.04.23] In an interview two days later, he explained in more detail how the situation escalated: “We tell them [the police] ‘We just need an evacuation, we come here and we also don’t like to sleep in the streets, we’re having cold.’ But they tell us that the neighbours complained, that the citizens don’t like this. But the police had a journalist with camera with them, maybe he is a policemen. He has a camera and likes to take some pictures from the refugees and immigrants over there. He takes some picture of a woman, I think she is from Sudan. She says the police ‘Why do you take my picture?’. The police tell her ‘We can take your picture. What’s your problem?’. The woman asks why and asks the police to delete the picture right now. After that, the police slaps the women and everyone just gets crazy. And all of this because they like to take us out. They make these problems because they need any kind of problem to tell the people that we make problems.” [15.04.23]

He continues: “The police attacked everyone, also women and children.  They used tear gas. When they threw the tear gas into the crowd, chaos broke out. The first concern of people was to evacuate the place.” A. adds: “We link arms with each other and let children and women behind us to protect them. But it is too much.” [13.04.23]

He continues: “In this scenario, the people defended themselves by throwing the tear gas cans back in the direction of the police. Doing so, several cars have been broken. This smashing of the cars was planned by the UNHCR staff in order to change the reputation of the refugees protesting in front of the UNHCR, to be able to say that they are criminals destroying private property. But what we had to do when being attacked with tear gas by the police was to throw the cans back, so of course cars get broken if you are attacked in a place where cars are parked. In this moment, we were governed by fear and were afraid for our lives.” [13.04.23]

In an interview two days later, he highlighted the situation of the children: “You know, the situation is so crazy, some children are crying because of the gas. Some people put milk in the face because of the gas.” [A., 15.04.23]

  1. describes the consequences of the tear gas attack: “My wife [who is 8 months pregnant] fainted down because of tear gas launched by the police in front of the UNHCR and had pain in her stomach. We don’t know if the baby is OK or not because when she fainted, she fell on her stomach.” [13.04.23]

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. “We then went to the IOM because we had no other place to go to. Arriving at the IOM, we were encircled by the police and again threatened by them. They confronted us again, for the second time in front of the IOM. […] we tried to escape, but some people were arrested. Over 70 people have been arrested. There are some who are still missing, we don’t know if they are in detention or if they have been taken to secret prisons, we don’t have any information.” [13.04.23]

The people discussed what to do: “Right now, we lose the UNHCR area and they don’t like us to stay in the IOM camp. Where can we go? We discuss where to go, we go to the US embassy, because we don’t have a choice.” [A., 15.04.23]

Lacking other options and still looking for safety whilst trying to highlight the fact that Tunisia is not safe for them, the protesters decide to turn towards the American embassy, around 4 kilometers away from the UNHCR building in a neighbourhood called Lac II. A. explains: “We are on the street to the [American] embassy, on the big street to La Marsa [another neighbourhood in Tunis]. We go 200 meters, the police follows us. You know, the military, those policemen all in black, what you see in movies. […] This is why my friends tell me “A., you have to run, these guys like to catch you, it is too dangerous for you”. All of us we run. But some people they catch them. I am running, am running, am running. I hide in a friend’s restaurant who tell me to come, he let me go inside the restaurant, I stay there for maybe two hours.” [A., 15.04.23]

After the eviction, the camp’s basic infrastructure was completly 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.

  1. states: “Some people tell me stories, it is crazy. The police takes everything from your pockets. Some people lost everything, all their money. A person from Nigeria lost 3,040 dinars. […] So many people lost phones and money. The police checks your pockets, if it is only few money, they just throw it away. The police caught more than 70 persons. Some people were caught in the street, they got many people, any person in Lac at this time, any Black, any Black. The people arrested report about electric shocks. They did so to ask ‘Who is the leader? Who posted the videos on social media?’, they ask many questions. […] After maybe five to six hours in jail, 20 persons were released. The police said that they don’t have videos of them to prove that they broke cars. But they were not given back their ID cards. They ask ‘Why?’, but the police only says, ‘You can come tomorrow.’ They don’t tell you any details.” [15.04.23]
  2. was tortured after having been arrested. He testifies: “When I hear that the police were attacking our camp, I came back to support my wife. But there was so much tear gas when I arrived that I fainted down. When I woke up, I was in the police station. I woke up in a big room with policemen, armed with wooden sticks. The policemen were beating the people in the police station. We were around 150 migrants detained in the police station. […] We were about 80 people taken to prison. The people who did not want to give fingerprints were beaten. It was so painful. […] In the police station, all of us were beaten but some of us more (the ones that were in front during the demonstrations… the people who are more active in the protest). The police knew these people because of the video we posted on social media. The police also used electroshock on us. I was shocked 3 times, this is also why I fainted down. I felt a huge pain in my back. I still feel pain now in my muscles. I was shocked by two policemen at the same time, can you imagine?” [14.04.23]
  3. also testifies about mistreatment from the Tunisian security forces: “We decided to go to the American embassy, but the police found out and they didn’t want us to go there, so they started to run after us and arrested us, took us to jail and beat us up. I was one of the people that were brought to jail, and I was surprised even to see the amount of people they had arrested. They even put injections on a table at the entrance of the police station, to intimidate us that they are going to use against us. They even used sticks, and kicked us. They took many guys, as if they were criminals, and attacked them with electricity.” [18.04.23]

After the attack, in the night from Tuesday April 11 to Wednesday April 12, 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:  “In the same night, four persons came to the IOM camp. It’s the civil police waking up people sleeping in front of the IOM, asking for the [leaders] […]. They make this because they need to end this front, they want to catch people, especially the leaders.” [A, 15.04.23]

On Twitter, the Refugees in Tunisia summarize what has happened thus: “The police arrived at 9am and continued to provoke us, but we held our breath, but when they continued to shoot you, the situation became crazy. Some cars were smashed because the police fired banyans to disperse us. We were attacked by the security personnel who were called by the UNHCR to break up our sit-in by force. When we tried to defend ourselves, tear gas were fired. We fled to a safe place, but the police told us that UNHCR & IOM had abandoned us and we should be able to go anywhere within 5 minutes. We decided to take refuge except in some embassies to protect ourselves, but we were attacked and beaten with sticks by the police, women, children and men were arrested. Now we have lost more than 80 people who are being held captive by the security personnel. Most of our spokespersons have been targeted. Some who managed to flee are still in an open prison at the mercy of everyone. We want to draw attention to human rights activists. We are in dire need of you.”

4. 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 April 11, 2023, the UN Refugee Agency states that “members of our personnel have been holding regular discussions with protestors to listen to their concerns and identify appropriate solutions. We provided information about the available options for refugees and asylum-seekers in the country, as well as the limitations, particularly regarding humanitarian evacuations and resettlement from Tunisia.” 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 protestors, one of whom sums up the situation as follows: “I need to talk about maybe why the UNHCR does not want to do anything. They know that people are slowly dying. They don’t care about people. Why? They see children and women sleeping in the streets, no toilet, no anything. Nobody cares. Why? They don’t like to talk about these things. They don’t like to ask about evacuation, to live a better life. They need you to die in Tunisia. For me it is very shocking. If you don’t like me to ask for evacuation, please, give me a better life. Give me a house, give me money to eat, you know what I am saying? If you don’t give them anything, we don’t have any choice. I tell them right now, so if this front is finished, maybe two weeks, three weeks, the people go over the sea, because the problem is still here.” [A., 15.04.23]

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 programme, one of UNHCR’s flagship programmes. Once again, the resettlement programme 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: “Yes, the UNHCR was not working before. Every time, the people go to the UNHCR, they don’t do anything. Just few people were given money. Maybe some people they tell them that there is an interview or assessment […], you know, every time they lie to people.” [A., 15.04.23]

In another testimony, another protestor named A. explains the UNHCR’s praxis in Tunisia: “I have several diseases and they refuse to accept me in the hospital, even when I show my refugee card. Whenever they don’t accept me in the hospital I go to the UNHCR to ask for support but they never do anything for me. One day I went to their office and one person working there told me ‘You always come here and we don’t have a solution for you, if you don’t like it go back to where you’re coming from’. I can’t go to the hospital not only because they don‘t accept our cards but because we don’t have the money for it, it is expensive and the UNHCR tells us to pay and then we will refund you, but many friends were never refunded.” [April]

  1. also underlines the long waiting periods involved in interactions with the UNHCR, explaining that “When we arrived we wanted to register in the UNHCR, we called them they told us they have our number and they will call us back, it’s been 6 months and we still haven’t received a single call and as we were living in a different city than Tunis we couldn’t come to their office.” [April]

In sum, the protesters highlight their experiences of non-assistance by the UNHCR. A. summarizes the protest and its eviction thus: “The UNHCR was and is still unwilling to change the situation. We believe it was their plan to evict and disperse the protest. Now for us the goal is to ensure the safety of those who are still imprisoned. And we need to come to a point to show that Tunisia is not safe. We need evacuation. The situation is not balanced. The UNHCR is denying that they are the one who called the police, but they are the ones to be held accountable for what has happened.” [13.04.23]

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 protestors 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 protestors 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.: “This is all a comedia. They do this whole discourse about ‘people breaking cars’ to let us look like bad people.” [A., 15.04.23]

5. The current situation

To date – April 26 – 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 neighbouring 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 criminalisation. At least 30 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 April 24, 15 people were temporarily released thanks to the efforts of civil society organisations. 

Looking back on the past months, A. states: “What has happened is that the people have been totally demoralized, they lost everything: they were kicked out of their homes, then they have been protesting, then they have been attacked by the police with tear gas, and now they are accused of having destroyed private property and public assets. But this is the responsibility of the UNHCR and they should be held accountable.” [13.04.23] He then adds: “Now we need to find a way to speak to the Tunisian public to show that we are not criminals, but that we were pushed into that situation.” [13.04.23]

The Refugees in Tunisia continue to call for evacuation and support: “We are dying here, all the world needs to know and help us. Our brothers in prisons are suffering, we are worried for them. We want evacuation to any country, we cannot return back to our country. […] We don’t want to live in fear. […] People here treat us as animals, the citizens of this country wish bad things to happen to the Blacks. I am not saying it is everybody, there are also good people coming here to help us, because they care about us. […] If we stay here we are going to die.” [S, 18.04.23]