African migrants stuck and harrassed in Sfax's olive fields

“Bring your cameras out here, I want everyone to see me say this: Tunisia is bull, f**k, shit, motherf**ker,” yells Emmanuel Kebua Akale Ebäi, his middle fingers raised at the sky.

Emmanuel is a 47-year-old father of two from Cameroon and one of thousands of migrants from across Africa who are currently stuck in the olive fields north of Tunisia’s second-largest city, Sfax.

Emmanuel fled the civil war with his wife and two children in Cameroon’s anglophone Northwest and Southwest regions. They all have valid asylum status with the UNHCR in Tunisia.

"Tunisian authorities are trying to make life hard for the migrants by making them angry and violent, after which their behaviour can be used to justify this treatment"

However, the difficult situation for Sub-Saharan Africans – or ‘blacks’ as has become the common term among migrants, across languages – brought him to a makeshift tent camp spread out in the olive fields at kilometres 25 and 26 north of Sfax.

“They don’t want us here, but they won’t let us leave,” he explained as his initial agitation upon seeing outsiders in the camp waned. “They just want to sell us their things,” he continued.

Since late summer 2023 when the Tunisian National Guard cleared central Sfax of migrants, scattered makeshift camps for migrants have dotted the countryside north of Sfax.

While some reported staying in the fields before, the camps were properly established when those cleared from central Sfax were taken in National Guard minibuses to the fields and dropped there with instructions not to come back.

Since then, the fields have become destinations for migrants, as new camps pop up, and old ones continue to grow.

The camp at kilometers 25 and 26 has some of the harsher conditions. Roger, another Cameroonian who wanted to remain anonymous as he fought in the same civil war, argued that the camp had it worse than the others because of the owners of the land.

“This camp is hit harder by the National Guard because the land's owner doesn’t want us here. He says we ruin the roots of the olive trees, and maybe there’s some truth to it, but what can we do?” Roger told The New Arab.

He argued that the Tunisian authorities are trying to make life hard for the migrants by making them angry and violent, after which their behaviour can be used to justify this treatment.

Another Cameroonian, a Nigerian and a Liberian listening in nodded in agreement. “In Cameroon, we have a saying: ‘One day, a man will die’. One day, a man will die here, whether it’s at the hands of the National Guard or through diseases,” he said.

Deplorable camp conditions

At the camp in kilometres 25 and 26, the National Guard come by often. Empty tear gas canisters and used buckshot are scattered throughout the camp.

Video materials confirm that the National Guard and Police came to the camp on March 8 and a couple of weeks later on March 23.

On March 8, tear gas and buckshot were fired en masse, and the security forces brought a loader tractor to destroy the migrants’ tents.

Police Intervention Units and National Guard Special Units in military fatigues were present — migrants interviewed by The New Arab believed them to be from the “army,” though like the police, they are under the authority of the Ministry of Interior.

Then on March 23, the security forces brought two loader tractors and destroyed more tents, but this time, the visit remained mostly peaceful, according to sources in the camp.

“It’s very far. I don’t have money on me. I have no telephone. And even if you go to the bus, they will not take blacks. So I said hey, I have no option. The option is to come back to try your luck again and maybe I might succeed. InshAllah”

The camps have no electricity, clean drinking water and no basic services.

“We’re all sick. They make us drink the water they use for the fields. I’ve had diarrhoea for a month now,” one migrant explained.

If they get caught by the National Guard – whether it be by way of the Coast Guard on the Mediterranean or because they dared to venture out of the olive fields to the main roads leading into Sfax – all their belongings are confiscated and they are taken to be dropped at Tunisia’s borders with Algeria or Libya.

The Cameroonian Diaspora Association in Tunisia announced that on March 24, one Cameroonian – Ernest Tchotieu, a Cameroonian MMA national champion – was shot dead by the National Guard in the Kasserine region as his group was being refouled to the Algerian border.

Zubeir, a migrant from Ghana, was taken to the Algerian border in Gafsa after getting caught on the sea in November 2023. The National Guard took all his belongings and ordered him to crawl under the barbed wire fence delineating the border.

“I asked myself: am I going back to my country, or am I coming back [to Tunisia] to try my luck again? When I weighed these two thoughts, going back was not an option,” Zubeir said.

“It’s very far. I don’t have money on me. I have no telephone. And even if you go to the bus, they will not take blacks. So I said hey, I have no option. The option is to come back to try your luck again and maybe I might succeed. InshAllah.”

Without a phone, migrants in the camps are stuck in place with neither the ability to save up for their trip across the Mediterranean nor the means to buy basic supplies for food.

Cash brought from home quickly runs out or is stolen on the perilous trip across Africa, and the migrants rely on their family and friends to send money through phone contact.

“Ninety percent of the people here don’t have their own money to eat. If you have money, you get food and you share it,” explained Zubeir.

EU border externalization

In July 2023, Tunisia and the European Union signed a much-discussed Memorandum of Understanding, providing Tunisia with extra funding for its security forces in exchange for patrolling EU southern borders more intensely.

This is far from the only such funding, as Tunisia’s security apparatus has received EU and European material support for its security apparatus for decades, including German funding for border fences on the Libyan border.

The EU finances the stemming of migration across Africa, the latest example being the recent EU-Egypt financial package.

The makeshift camps are a “ripple effect of the EU externalization policies combined with the lack of a national legal framework in Tunisia when it comes to migration,” explained Ahlam Chemlali, PhD-fellow at the Danish Institute for International Studies whose research focuses on migration and borders in North Africa.

In Tunisia, the UNHCR handles asylum cases without national legislation.

“This is not a new model for the EU but one they have used for decades. But now it’s both on the political and technological front where we see tests of radars and all sorts of equipment for border guards,” Ahlam continued, noting that on the European side, the security-oriented approach to migration seems to be the new blueprint.

“They’re training the Tunisian coast guard to become more like the Libyan: really strong and able to do the pushbacks that the Libyan coast guard has been doing for some years now, despite knowing that migrants face abuses when returned.”

This is despite the EU’s framing of this externalization as promoting humanitarian approaches and the wellbeing of migrants.

In reality, Chemlali said, the opposite is the case, as the policies make migrants more vulnerable and their journeys more fragmented, precarious and dangerous.

On the Tunisian side of this cooperation, Chemlali said, “Security forces gain access to training through the ICMPD, which is what one could call the EU’s implementation organ that trains the coast guard and various security forces.

"So you could say that the EU de facto supports and also bolsters security forces that go after [Tunisian] critics, opposition politicians, journalists and so on.”

In the camps, the only hope now is to reach Europe. “The word Africa comes from Tunisia. We’re all Africans, and all we ask of Tunisia is, just let us leave,” Emmanuel concluded.

*__Jakob Plaschke is a freelance journalist and MA student at Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies

Follow him on Twitter: @jakobplaschke__*

© Al-Araby Al-Jadeed