Tunisia struggles to host migrants saved at sea

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini with Tunisia’s Interior Minister Hichem Fourati during a migration conference in Vienna. (AFP)
Updated 15 September 2018

Tunisia struggles to host migrants saved at sea

  • While Tunisia is striving to manage its migrant population, the EU has suggested the country could play host to a “disembarkation platform” to process those rescued at sea
  • The proposal made to North African countries by the EU in June was swiftly rejected by Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt

MEDENINE: Surrounded by other people’s belongings piled high on beds, Georgie Ndab wants to leave Tunisia’s only migrant center and take her baby to Europe.

“I spent eight months in prison in Libya. I want to go to Europe to guarantee my son a good education,” said Ndab, a 21-year-old from Cameroon.

Sitting in a small room in suffocating heat, she pours talcum powder on baby Moses in an effort to relieve the eight-month-old’s irritated skin.

“I thank Tunisia, but the situation here isn’t good, and my direction is Europe, France,” added Ndab, who traveled through Nigeria and Niger to reach North Africa.

She is one of 247 people, including 15 children, living at the Red Crescent center in the southern town of Medenine.

The facility is the only one in Tunisia to host migrants who reached the country illegally, either being picked up by authorities near Libya or in waters off the country's coast.

The three-story building is overcrowded, with just half the number of beds needed and three kitchens and bathrooms for everyone.

Francis Lele, a fellow Cameroonian, said each person receives a kilo of rice, three tins of sardines and a bottle of milk per week.

“Tunisia does not properly take care of migrants,” said the 32-year-old, who said he was enslaved in Libya and forced to work in construction before boarding a boat for Europe.

The Red Crescent center opened in 2013 and after losing some of its funding earlier this year is struggling to raise the 320,000 dinars ($114,000) needed to cover its annual costs.

But despite the cuts, center head Mogni Slim said the food allowance is sufficient.

“It’s not a great luxury but we offer food in accordance with the normal calorie intake,” he said.

While Tunisia is striving to manage its migrant population, the EU has suggested the country could play host to a “disembarkation platform” to process those rescued at sea.

The proposal made to North African countries by the EU in June was swiftly rejected by Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt.

At the end of July, Tunisia said it would take in 40 migrants rescued by a commercial vessel but — wary of setting a precedent— said it was only for humanitarian reasons.

A number of those saved by the Tunisian-flagged “Sarost 5” ship were taken in by the Medenine centrer.

Romdhan Ben Amor, from the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, said Tunisia cannot become a reception country while it “does not guarantee the rights of migrants.”

Even for sub-Sahara African migrants who move to Tunisia by legal means, it is incredibly complicated to obtain a residency permit which is essential for daily life in the country.

When it comes to those who have entered Tunisia illegally with the aim of traveling onwards to Europe, the UN’s migration agency said the country is ill-equipped to manage these arrivals.

“Tunisia has neither the legal framework nor the humanitarian infrastructure nor the economic development necessary,” said Lorena Lando, from the UN's International Organization for Migration.

At the Red Crescent center, residents have 60 days to decide whether to voluntarily return to their home countries or to stay in Tunisia.

The center head said around a third choose to go home, often worn out by experiences in Libya. The remainder opt to remain in Tunisia, with the ultimate aim of traveling onwards to Europe.

But it is not only migrants from elsewhere who take the perilous sea journey across the Mediterranean, in rickety smugglers’ boats.

With an unemployment rate of 15 percent and struggling public services such as health care, Tunisia is seeing its own residents leave the country.

So far this year Tunisia was the fourth country after Syria, Iraq and Guinea for nationals crossing into Europe, accounting for 7 percent of arrivals, according to figures from the UN refugee agency, or UNHCR.

Back at the Medenine centre a 26-year-old Egyptian, Ali Ibrahim Nadi, said they share the same plight: "They want to leave their country, so do we, we want to depart for Europe."

US envoy: Fight against Daesh in last Syria stronghold may end soon

Updated 15 November 2018

US envoy: Fight against Daesh in last Syria stronghold may end soon

  • James Jeffrey: Washington keen to establish constitutional committee by end of the year

WASHINGTON: The administration of US President Donald Trump hopes that the US-backed fight against Daesh in its last foothold in northeastern Syria will end within months but American forces will remain to ensure the “enduring defeat” of the militant group, a top US diplomat said on Wednesday.

Ambassador James Jeffrey, the US special representative for Syrian engagement, said the US believes the way forward in Syria includes defeating Daesh, reinvigorating the political process and winding down the long-running civil war.

Toward that end, he said, the US hopes to see the formation of a committee before the end of the year to work on a new constitution for Syria as agreed by the leaders of Russia, Germany, France and Turkey during their meeting in Istanbul in October.

He said US forces would remain in place after the coalition forces prevail over Daesh military units to ensure the group does not “regenerate itself.”

“The enduring defeat means not simply smashing the last of Daesh’s (Daesh) conventional military units holding terrain, but ensuring that Daesh doesn’t immediately come back in sleeper cells, come back as an insurgent movement,” Jeffrey said.

Washington also wants the withdrawal of Iranian military forces from Syria once the underlying causes of the conflict have been resolved, he said, noting that Iran’s continued military presence would represent a threat to US partners in the region.

Jeffrey said the final ground combat is along the Euphrates River and is being led by Syrian Democratic Forces assisted by US military personnel.

“The fight is continuing and we hope that it will be over in a few months and that will be the last of Daesh’s terrain that it holds in a quasi-conventional way,” he said.

Jeffrey said convening a committee under UN auspices to begin work on a new Syrian constitution was a “critical step” toward advancing the political process. 

He said the US would hold Russia to account to use its influence to bring the regime of its ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, to the negotiating table.

“Our goal, which again was supported by Russia, France, Germany and Turkey and agreed in the Oct. 27 Istanbul communique, is to establish this constitutional committee by the end of the year,” he said.

Jeffrey said getting Iranian forces out of Syria, where they back Assad’s rule, was not a US military goal but should be an outcome of the process to end the civil war and the only way to achieve lasting peace.

He said newly reinstated US sanctions against Iran would encourage Tehran to scale back its presence in Syria.