Stranded Migrants Face Violence as Tunisia Blocks Route to Europe

For many migrants who’ve long dreamed of Europe, one of the final stops is an expanse of olive trees on North Africa’s Mediterranean coastline. However, in Tunisia, less than 100 miles (161 kilometers) from the Italian islands that form the European Union’s outermost borders, that dream often turns into a nightmare.

Under black tarps covered with blankets and ropes, men, women, and children seek shelter from the sunlight, waiting for their chance to board one of the iron boats used by paid smugglers to transport people to Italy. Having fled war, poverty, climate change, or persecution, they find themselves trapped in Tunisia — unable to reach Europe and without the money to return home.

Based on unofficial estimates, the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration believes 15,000 to 20,000 migrants are stranded in rural olive groves near the central Tunisian coastline. Their presence results from anti-migration policies in both Tunisia and Europe, particularly from right-wing politicians who made significant gains in the European Union’s parliamentary elections this week, according to early projections.

These encampments have grown in size since last year as police have pushed migrants out of cities and increased efforts to prevent Mediterranean crossings.

When police razed tents last summer in Sfax, Tunisia’s second-largest city, many migrants moved to the countryside near the stretch of coastline north of the city. Among them is Mory Keita, a 16-year-old who left a flood-prone suburb outside of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, last September to join a friend already in Tunisia. Keita arrived at an encampment called Kilometer-19 earlier this year.

Named for a highway marker indicating its distance from Sfax, Kilometer-19 is notorious for clashes between migrant groups. “Machete brawls” regularly break out between groups that self-sort by nationality, including Cameroonians, Ivorians, Guineans, and Sudanese. When police come, it’s not to ensure safety, but to forcibly disband the encampments, Keita said.

“The truth is I’m afraid of where we are,” he said. “Innocent people get hurt. The police don’t intervene. It’s not normal.”

Passportless, Keita paid a smuggler 400,000 Central African Francs ($661) to take him through Mali and Algeria last year. He dreams of resettling in France, finding work, and sending earnings back to his family in Ivory Coast.

Keita made it onto a boat on the Mediterranean Sea in March, but Tunisia’s coast guard intercepted it, arrested him, and returned him to the nearby beach without any bureaucratic processing, he said.

With European funds and encouragement, the coast guard has successfully prevented more migrants like Keita from making dangerous journeys across the sea. From January to May, it stopped nearly 53,000 migrants from crossing its maritime border to Europe, Interior Minister Kamel Fekih said last month. Less than 10,000 migrants successfully crossed from Tunisia to Italy this year, down from 23,000 in the same period last year.

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Piers Potter


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