Among them there was a pregnant woman who gave birth to her baby in Libya just after her arrival there.
ASGI, the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and other Tunisian and French associations – Forum Tunisien pour les Droits Economiques et Sociaux, Avocats Sans Frontières, Médecins du monde, Mission Tunisie, ADLI-Association tunisienne de défense des libertés individuelles and Association BEITY – have come together to denounce that Tunisian authorities rescued a group of foreigners at sea and then deported them to Libya.
“Pushing back men, women, many of whom are pregnant, and children without identifying them, providing initial assistance and giving them the chance to apply for international protection is a violation of fundamental human rights and of the right to asylum itself”.
On Monday, 27th September 2021, several boats – four with people from the Sub-Saharan Africa region and three with Tunisians on board – left Kerkennah, a group of islands off Sfax. After 12 hours of navigation, they were intercepted by the Tunisian National Guard and taken back to Tunisia.
According to witnesses, the Tunisians nationals were released, while the Sub-Saharan people were transferred to the Libyan border. According to our sources, the group consisted of around one hundred people, among them several women and minors. At least three of the women were pregnant.
Several human rights violations were reported: deportation at gunpoint, mobile phones requisition, lack of medical or obstetrical assistance, abuses and violence, arbitrary arrests and detention. Once at the Libyan border, Tunisian National Guard officers allegedly forced migrants to cross the border at gunpoint.
One group of migrants was kidnapped after crossing the border into Libya. According to our sources, they are currently detained not far from the border, in a private house in Zuwara. A ransom of 500 USD has allegedly been set for each migrant. Another group of migrants, initially stopped at Ras Jedir, was recently arrested by the Libyans. Their mobile phones, at present out of reach, were allegedly requisitioned. This group includes two pregnant women, one of whom is eight months pregnant.
Videos on the Internet show a woman forced to deliver her baby out in the open, with only one man helping her. She was then transferred by the armed forces who watched the delivery to Ben Guerdane Hospital.
According to witnesses, one of these groups of migrants not only suffered violence by the Tunisian security forces from the moment of their capture until their pushback at the frontier, but it was also deprived of food and basic assistance for five days. Moreover, several Sub-Saharan women reported being raped in Libya.
Furthermore, other witnesses report another arbitrary pushback to Libya at the end of August, which involved many women and minors. Hence the pushback of 27th September at the Libyan border is not an isolated case but an example of common practices. These acts are presumably based on the assumption that foreign citizens passed through Libya before entering Tunisia, although they were arrested while leaving Tunisia and not while crossing the Tunisia-Libya border.
The behaviour of the Tunisian authorities infringes the provisions of the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention, ratified by Tunisia in 1957. Moreover, pushbacks to Libya, a country which cannot in any way be considered safe for the return of migrants, do not comply with international law and the principle of non-refoulement.
The pushback of men, women, many of whom are pregnant, and children, without any prior identification and provision of initial assistance and without giving them a chance to apply for international protection, is a violation of fundamental human rights and of the right to asylum itself.
This incident is all the more serious because Libya is a country without any legal framework on asylum and because violence and torture on migrants, many of whom are very vulnerable, have been frequently reported by the international community.
Pushbacks to Libya make Tunisia an accomplice in the serious violations and violence perpetrated on foreign citizens.
The signatory organisations denounce human rights violations against Sub-Saharan migrants and demand that Tunisian authorities clarify the facts, urgently intervene to guarantee adequate and dignified assistance to these people and immediately take political decisions in order to establish a clear mechanism and procedure for taking charge of foreign citizens rescued at sea and to guarantee that they are treated in compliance with the commitments made by Tunisia.
ASF – Avocats Sans Frontières
FTDES – Forum Tunisien pour les Droits Economiques et Sociaux
OMCT – Organisation mondiale contre le torture
ASGI Association – Associazione per gli Studi Giuridici sull’Immigrazione
Terre d’Asile Tunisie
Médecins du Monde, Tunisian Mission
ADLI – Association tunisienne de défense des libertés individuelles
Photo from Flickr – CC BY 2.0 – U.S. Army Southern European Task Force, Africa