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French migrant centre overwhelmed as sub-Saharan Africans flee Tunisia

Migrant centre on the Italy-French border struggles to cope with the influx of people fleeing racist violence in Tunisia
Terrasses Solidaires in Briancon, less than 10km from the Italian border, reports being inundated with refugees from Italy (Courtesy of Capucine Mounal)

A French migrant shelter has been overwhelmed with people crossing the border with Italy and most of the arrivals are fleeing racist attacks in Tunisia, according to Terrasses Solidaires.

"We only have space for 64 people, today we have 100. Last week, arrivals peaked at 138," Capucine Mounal and Arthur Blanchard, the spokespeople for Terrasses Solidaires shelter in Briancon, less than 10km from the Italian border, told Middle East Eye.

The centre is normally a stop-off point for refugees on their way to Paris, but prohibitively high train fares have trapped successive groups of incomers at the struggling centre.

Sub-Saharan Africans have been fleeing Tunisia for Italy in recent months following an incendiary speech by President Kais Saied in which he said that migration posed a security threat.

His comments unleashed waves of violence targeting Tunisia’s black population, who have reportedly faced beatings, stabbings and rape at the hands of gangs of predominantly young men.

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Black people in Tunisia have also reported eviction by landlords, and arbitrary detention by security forces.

Last week, a 30-year-old Beninese man was killed and five others were wounded in an attack by seven Tunisians armed with knives and sabres in the eastern town of Sfax.

People demanding humanitarian evacuation have camped outside the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) headquarters in Tunis.

"Migrants feel more vulnerable," Eric Goldstein, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division told MEE.

"Many have been reduced to unemployment and homelessness… they are known to carry cash around and they are less likely to file a complaint with the police if they are robbed. They’re sitting targets for abuse," Goldstein added.

Man-made shipwrecks

The spike in violence has seen a surge of sub-Saharan Africans crossing the central Mediterranean to Italy from Tunisia, overtaking Libya as the primary country of departure.

In addition, the militarisation of the Libyan coastal border, which has been bolstered by EU funding, has made Tunisia a more viable route as it carries a reduced risk of interception by the coastguard.

According to the UN, 12,000 people have arrived on Italy's shores from Tunisia so far this year, compared with 1,300 in the same period of 2022.

Tunisia's spiralling economic crisis - with inflation at around 11 percent - is another push factor driving increasing numbers to attempt to cross the sea. Milder temperatures in recent weeks have also emboldened greater numbers to attempt the crossing.

'We know a lot of people who have been personally attacked by the Tunisian coast guard'

- Hiba, Alarm phone volunteer

There has also been a sharp rise in fatalities among those attempting the route, which is described by the UN as the deadliest sea crossing for refugees in the world.

This month, the Tunisian coast guard reported that around 210 bodies were recovered along the route within just two weeks, the majority of them of sub-Saharan origin.

Morgues and hospitals in Sfax reported being overwhelmed with bodies.

"These shipwrecks are man-made," Hiba, a volunteer for Alarm Phone, a self-organised hotline for people in distress at sea, told MEE.

For Hiba, the rise in "invisible shipwrecks" is linked to the increase in violent interceptions by the Tunisian Coast Guard. In the first quarter of 2023 alone, 14,963 people were violently intercepted in Tunisian waters.

"They say they are saving people, but that does not mean you forcibly stop a boat that is [working]... you don’t create waves that [cause] the boat to capsize," she said.

"We know a lot of people who have been personally attacked by the Tunisian coast guard."

On 9 March, shortly after Saied’s speech, Alarm Phone reported that the coast guard had attacked two boats and stolen their engines, leaving 200 people adrift.

"If it was not [for the] fishermen who had rescued them, we don’t know what would have happened to them," Hiba said.

The coastguard has been bolstered by more than $39.5m from the EU's Trust fund for African "management of migration flows and borders".

The EU also has also bolstered Tunisia's border policing through the provision of training and surveillance equipment.

Goodwill alone is not enough

Located just a few kilometres from the Italian border, Briancon is no stranger to influxes of people.

Terraces Solidaires was founded in order to house people coming from Calais after the so-called "jungle" refugee camp was dismantled in 2015. 

In 2021, an increase in arrivals and Covid restrictions forced the shelter to close its doors and people had to camp out at the Briancon station in icy temperatures.

Now, the shelter is managing on stretched donations and volunteers to cater for the latest arrivals. The collective sent two letters requesting help from the state; both went unanswered.

'The state have sent us nothing except the police'

-Capucine Mounal, Terrasses Solidaires

"The state have sent us nothing except the police," Mounal told MEE.

In lieu of support, border police and the Gendarmerie, a military police unit, had been sent to perform illegal push-back at the border. "They are doing this systematically," she said.

Mounal warned that the militarisation of the border could have fatal consequences.

The adoption of emergency measures to deal with large-scale arrivals across the Italy-French border in 2015, led to a rise in the practice of forcibly pushing people back to Italy.

Dangerous policing practices, like chasing refugees through the mountainous landscape, also began to proliferate.

In 2018, a Border Forensics investigation connected the death of a 21-year-old Nigerian woman, Blessing Matthew, who was found in la Durance river, to the Gendarmerie's policing of the border.

Mounal and Blanchard said the state could help by providing more transport links and subsidising tickets for travel, as well as providing emergency accommodation at nearby empty holiday homes.

"Obviously, goodwill alone is not enough," Terraces Solidaires said in a press release.

"We are sounding the alarm, so the state implements a policy that is dignified and respectful of the rights of exiled people."

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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