• An investigation led by Lighthouse Reports has claimed that EU funding was used in operations to ‘dump’ migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa in the desert and other remote areas in Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia, and that the EU was aware of them.
  • The European Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, and lead candidate for the Party of European Socialists in the 2024 European Parliament elections, has suggested that the EU’s migration agreements with Egypt and Tunisia have yet to prove ‘efficient’ and should be revised.
  • People in the Tunisian town of Jebeniana have staged a protest against the presence of migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa.
  • The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has raised concerns about the ‘increased targeting’ in Tunisia of migrants and the people and organisations that try to help them, and urged the authorities to release people detained for defending migrants’ rights.
  • The Tunisian government is in the process of signing agreements with several other African countries to enable the ‘voluntary’ return of migrants from the country.

The authors of a new investigative journalism report have claimed that the EU “supports, finances and is directly involved in clandestine operations in North African countries to dump tens of thousands of Black people in the desert or remote areas to prevent them from coming to the EU”. According to the documents, which were published by Lighthouse Reports following a year-long investigation involving a number of other media organisations, “in Morocco, Mauritania and Tunisia, refugees and migrant workers, some of whom were on their way towards Europe, as well as people who had legal status and established livelihoods in these countries, are apprehended based on the colour of their skin, loaded onto buses and driven to the middle of nowhere, often arid desert areas”. They also reported that “By speaking with current and former EU staff members, as well as sources within national police forces and international organisations with a presence in the countries where the dumps are taking place, we established that the EU is well aware of the dump operations and sometimes directly involved”. Responding to journalists’ questions about the outcomes of the investigation, which Lighthouse Reports has called “the most comprehensive attempt yet to document European knowledge and involvement with anti-migrant, racially motivated operations in North Africa”, European Commission spokesperson  Eric Mamer said: “This is a difficult situation. It’s a fast-moving situation, and we will continue to work on it”. His colleague, EC spokesperson Ana Pisonero, gave an equally measured response: “Sometimes the situation is challenging in our partner countries (…) (but they) remain sovereign states and they continue to be in control of their national forces”. Speaking shortly after the publication of ‘Desert Dumps’, Veronica Barroso from Amnesty International restated her organisation’s concerns about the EU’s migration agreements with third countries. “These third countries actually act as ‘gatekeepers’ to prevent migrants from reaching Europe,” she said, adding: “Instead of externalising migration, the EU should provide legal and safe ways for these people to reach our territory”.

The publication of the findings of the latest Lighthouse Reports investigation comes two weeks after European Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights Nicolas Schmit said that the EU’s migration agreements with Egypt and Tunisia needed to be “revised”. In an interview with Euronews, Schmit, who is also the lead candidate for the Party of European Socialists in the 2024 European Parliament elections, said that he was “reluctant” about the deals which “have to still prove efficient”. “We’re spending now huge amounts of money, giving this money to different regimes or governments like the Tunisian government. We know the authorities there are treating very badly the refugees,” he said, adding: “We still have the problem in Libya, where there (are) two governments. We have the question in Egypt. So I’m quite reluctant with these kind of deals”. Schmit also addressed the concern that was later raised in the Lighthouse Reports documents about the difficulty of knowing how the EU funding for the implementation of the agreements was being spent. “I think we have to revise them and see what can be done, how can we do it differently because we do not know exactly how the money is used,” he said.

On 16 May, Amnesty International published a statement in which it reported that, in the previous two weeks, the Tunisian government had “launched an unprecedented repressive clampdown against migrants, refugees and human rights defenders working to protect their rights”. The organisation’s Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa, Heba Morayef, said: “Tunisia’s authorities have stepped up their malicious crackdown against civil society organizations working on migrants and refugee rights using misleading claims about their work and harassing and prosecuting NGO workers, lawyers and journalists,” adding: “A smear campaign online and in the media, supported by the Tunisian President himself, has put refugees and migrants in the country at risk. It also undermines the work of civil society groups and sends a chilling message to all critical voices”. Morayef urged Tunisian authorities to “immediately end this vicious campaign and halt all reprisals against NGO workers providing essential support, including shelter to migrants and refugees”. He also suggested that the EU should be “urgently reviewing its cooperation agreements with Tunisia to ensure that it is not complicit in human rights violations against migrants and refugees nor in the clampdown on media, lawyers, migrants and activists”.

The United Nations (UN) has also expressed its concerns about the treatment of migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa in Tunisia. On 17 May, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ spokesperson, Ravina Shamdasani, stated that the organisation was “concerned about the increased targeting in Tunisia of migrants, mostly from south of the Sahara, and individuals and organisations working to assist them”. “At the same time, we are witnessing a rise in the use of dehumanising and racist rhetoric against Black migrants and Black Tunisians,” she added. Shamdasani also highlighted “incidents of arbitrary arrest and detention of human rights defenders, lawyers and journalists critical of the Government, as well as its migration policies. She delivered a plea from High Commissioner Volker Türk to the Tunisian authorities to “respect and safeguard freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly” and to release those people who had been detained “for defending the rights of migrants and for combating racial discrimination”. She concluded by insisting that “the human rights of all migrants must be protected, and xenophobic hate speech must stop”.

On 18 May, a protest against the presence of migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa took place in the town of Jebeniana (Sfax Governorate). According to Euronews, hundreds of people marched through the streets of the town, which is close to the coast from where many people depart to try to cross the Mediterranean on their way to Europe. The protest in Jebeniana was the latest in a series of protests that have taken place in the region since Tunisian President Kais Said made a speech denouncing the presence of undocumented migrants in the country in February 2023. The International Organization for Migration’s office in Tunisia has said that approximately 7,000 migrants are living close to Jebeniana and the nearby town of El Mara, where there was a similar protest in early May.

The Tunisian government is in the process of signing agreements with several other African countries to enable the “voluntary” return of migrants from the country. According to ANSA, the Secretary of State to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Migration and Tunisians Abroad, Mounir Ben Rjiba, told MPs in a parliamentary hearing on irregular migration that “the number of return requests is constantly increasing, as are repatriations and the operations of security agencies aimed at countering attempts at irregular migration”. In response, MPs reportedly called for a more effective strategy and the “urgent closure of land borders”.

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