TUNIS, Tunisia — Tunisia’s interior minister conceded that small groups of sub-Saharan migrants trying to enter the country are pushed back into the desert border areas with Libya and Algeria, but labeled as “false allegations” claims by the U.N., humanitarian groups and migrants themselves of mistreatment.
In an interview with The Associated Press Wednesday, Kamel Fekih said that while there is no “collective” expulsion of migrants, small groups trying to enter Tunisia are pushed back into the desert no man’s land.
However, he disputed remarks earlier this week by the deputy spokesman for the U.N. Secretary-General, Farhan Haq, who called on Tuesday for an “immediate end” to “the expulsion of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers from Tunisia to the borders with Libya and also Algeria.”
“What is this monsieur from the U.N. talking about?” the Tunisian interior minister said in the interview Wednesday. “There are no collective deportations by us.”
But he did say that “there are just little groups of 6 to 12 people who are pushed back” because they don’t have papers. He said that three bodies of migrants had been found in the desert frontiers between Libya and Algeria, to the north, but added the dead were found outside Tunisian territory.
Tunisia’s eastern coast, notably the port city of Sfax, has become the main launching point for migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, to get to Italy and other parts of Europe in small boats. With migrants pouring into Sfax and other points, tensions have risen between the local population and migrants, culminating last month with the death of a Tunisian in the city.
In recent months, security forces began removing some migrants from the city, bussing them elsewhere and, migrants say, dumping some of them in the desert. The AP is among media outlets who have spoken to migrants abandoned in a no-man’s land in dire conditions. Temperatures in the desert last month routinely exceeded 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).
Fekih said that 1,057 migrants had agreed to be returned home by July 20.
There are currently some 80,000 undocumented migrants in Tunisia, concentrated on the coast, with 17,000 in Sfax, he said.
President Kais Saied triggered anti-migrant fervor in February, saying the “hordes” of migrants were part of a plot to erase Tunisia’s identity and change its demography. The interior minister reiterated, without elaborating, more recent claims by Saied that an organ trafficking business has sprouted up around migrants.
“It is a large-scale migration … that sometimes engenders violence aggravated by the emergence of gangs that deal in the trafficking of humans and their organs and sell migrants fragile vessels called ‘boats of death’ that put their lives in danger and often sink at sea,” the interior minister said. From January to July 20, the bodies of 901 migrants had been pulled from the waters off the Tunisian coast, he added.
Some migrants have said they were beaten by Tunisian security officials, their possessions taken from them in some cases. The minister dismissed their claims, saying they had been “manipulated” in the hope of getting favors from organizations who deal with migration.
Photos, video and interviews with migrants in the no-man’s land between Tunisia and Libya that went viral on social media have dented Tunisia’s image as a friendly North African country, a reputation that officials are trying to repair.
Some entertainers, including rappers, have canceled their summer concerts in Tunisia, apparently as fall-out from the migrant crisis. Among them were rappers Bigflo and Oli who were to perform Wednesday in Carthage, outside Tunis where the presidential palace is located. They said on Instagram that they did not want to perform, given the current situation, and would give the money they were to earn to the humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders.
Because Tunisia has no borders with sub-Saharan Africa, migrants are forced to pass through Algeria or Libya — which do — to reach Tunisia, Fetih noted. “There are no collective pushbacks, but these (illegal) migrants are stopped from entering Tunisian territory because they come from Algeria and Libya.”
Haq, the U.N. deputy spokesman, reiterated Tuesday that “migrants, refugees and asylum seekers must be protected and treated with dignity … regardless of their status and in accordance with international human rights and refugee law.”
The interior minister said the short-term solution was to return migrants to their homeland, in cooperation with their countries and human rights organizations, because “Tunisia cannot support this large number of undocumented sub-Saharan migrants.”
Associated Press reporter Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed to this report.