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Tunisia removes hundreds of migrants to desert border region -rights group, lawmaker

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Migrants wait in the Tunisian port of Sfax after being stopped at sea by the Tunisian coast guard during an attempt to cross to Italy, April 26, 2023. REUTERS/Jihed Abidellaoui/

Tunisia has removed hundreds of sub-Saharan African migrants to a desolate area along the border with Libya, a local rights group and a lawmaker said on Wednesday, with witnesses reporting dozens more put on outbound trains following days of violence.

Disturbances between migrants and residents went on for a week in the port city of Sfax, and one Tunisian was killed, police said. Residents complained of disorderly behaviour by migrants, while migrants complained of racist harassment.

Thousands of undocumented African migrants have flocked to Sfax in recent months with the goal of setting off for Europe in boats run by human traffickers, amounting to an unprecedented migration crisis for the North African country.

Ramadan Ben Omar at the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights told Reuters that police had sent back hundreds of migrants including women and children this week and left them in a closed military zone along the desert border with Libya.

Moez Barakallah, a lawmaker from Sfax, said authorities had provided migrants removed from Sfax with meals and medicines and had sent about 1,200 of them to areas near the Libyan and Algerian borders. He said border security officers had taken charge of the migrants and would decide on further steps.

Ben Omar said rights activists in Sfax had reported beatings of migrants, ejections from accommodation they had rented and arbitrary detentions by local residents over the past several days before police intervened and restored order.

Unverified videos posted on social media showed young Tunisian men in Sfax detaining migrants, raising sticks and asking them to repeat, “Long live Tunisia.”

The interior ministry did not immediately respond to Reuters’ requests for comment.

There has been a surge in migration across the Mediterranean from Tunisia this year after a crackdown by Tunis on migrants from sub-Saharan Africa living in the country illegally and reports of racist attacks amid an economic downturn.

Last month, hundreds of Sfax residents protested against the presence of thousands of migrants and asked authorities to deport them, saying Sfax must not become a city of refugees.

Tunisia is under pressure from Europe to stop large numbers departing from its coasts. But President Kais Saied said that Tunisia will not be a border guard and that it will not accept the settlement of immigrants in the country.

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