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Tunisia: Repressive crackdown on civil society organizations following months of escalating violence against migrants and refugees

May 17, 2024

Credits @FFHR.CZ

Over the past two weeks, the Tunisian government has launched an unprecedented repressive clampdown against migrants, refugees, and human rights defenders working to protect their rights, as well as journalists, said Amnesty International today. This comes less than two weeks after a high-level coordination meeting with the Italian Ministry of Interior about migration management.

Tunisian authorities have since 3 May arrested, summoned and investigated the heads, former staff or members of at least 12 organizations over unclear accusations including “financial crimes” for providing aid to migrants, including a Tunisian organization that works in partnership with the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, on supporting asylum seekers through the refugee status determination process in the country. They have also arrested at least two journalists and referred them to trial for their independent reporting and comments in the media.

In parallel, security forces have escalated their collective unlawful deportations of refugees and migrants, as well as multiple forced evictions and have arrested and convicted landlords for renting apartments to migrants without permits.

“Tunisia’s authorities have stepped up their malicious crackdown against civil society organizations working on migrants and refugee rights using misleading claims about their work and harassing and prosecuting NGO workers, lawyers and journalists. A smear campaign online and in the media, supported by the Tunisian President himself, has put refugees and migrants in the country at risk. It also undermines the work of civil society groups and sends a chilling message to all critical voices,” said Heba Morayef, Regional Director for Middle East and North Africa for Amnesty International.

“Tunisia’s authorities must immediately end this vicious campaign and halt all reprisals against NGO workers providing essential support, including shelter, to migrants and refugees. The European Union should be urgently reviewing its cooperation agreements with Tunisia to ensure that it is not complicit in human rights violations against migrants and refugees nor in the clampdown on media, lawyers, migrants and activists.”

Tunisia’s authorities must immediately end this vicious

campaign and halt all reprisals against NGO workers

providing essential support, including shelter, to migrants and refugees.

Heba Morayef, Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa

The targets of the government crackdown, include the non-governmental organization Tunisian Council for Refugees (CTR) which recently advertised a tender for hotels to submit proposals for a program to shelter asylum seekers and refugees. Tunisian authorities arrested both the head and deputy head of CTR and prosecutors ordered their pretrial detention pending investigation in relation to charges of “forming a criminal alliance with the intention of helping a person to enter Tunisian territory without travel documents.” The Tunis General Prosecutor announced that an official investigation has been launched against “a group of associations and organizations” who are “abusing their mandate to provide financial support to ‘illegal immigrants.’”

On 8 May Tunisian police also arrested human rights defender Saadia Mosbah, head of Mnemty, a Tunisian anti-racist organization that provides support to refugees and migrants, and detained her pending investigation relating to “financial crimes” in connection with the organization’s funding. Police searched the organization’s Tunis offices as well as Mosbah’s home and questioned her and two Mnemty staff members about the organization’s funding, activities and partners.

Vicious clampdown on migrants and refugees

The latest crackdown comes in parallel with President Kais Saied’s inflammatory remarks during a National Security Council meeting on 6 May in which he particularly attacked civil society organizations, describing them as “traitors”, “[foreign] agents” and “rabid trumpets driven by foreign wages”, because of their receipt of foreign funding and their “insulting” of the state. He said that criticism of the state constituted treason. His address came shortly following a Rome meeting on migration on 2 May 2024 between the interior ministers of Algeria, Italy, Libya and Tunisia.

On at least six occasions between July 2023 and April 2024, the Tunisian president publicly accused civil society organizations of meddling in Tunisia’s internal affairs and financing corruption, specifically referring to their receipt of foreign funding as grounds to discredit their work.

On Friday 3 May, before dawn, Tunisian security forces evicted hundreds of migrants and refugees, including children, pregnant women and asylum seekers registered with the UNHCR, who were camping in a public park near the Tunis offices of the IOM and UNHCR. During the eviction, according to Amnesty International’s documentation, security forces used teargas and tasers against them, including against children. They kicked, punched and hit them with batons.  In his address to the security council on 6 May the president also indicated that Tunisian security forces forcibly returned 400 people to the Libyan border, in an apparent collective unlawful deportation.

On 4 May, security forces forcibly evicted 15 migrants who had lived in a youth complex in Marsa, a northern Tunis suburb, since 2017. The group, who fled Libya in 2011, had previously been evicted from a UN refugee camp in Ben Gardene, southern Tunisia, after it closed in 2013. UNHCR had denied their asylum requests. The 15 men are being detained on charges of remaining in the country illegally. They appeared before the public prosecutor without a translator or a lawyer.

“Tunisia’s authorities are carrying out arbitrary collective unlawful deportations without due process or individual protection assessments in flagrant violation of international law. They must immediately halt these expulsions and ensure the rights of all refugees and migrants, including children, are protected at all times,” said Heba Morayef.

Between 8 and 10 May, authorities arrested two people and sentenced another individual to eight months in prison for housing undocumented people.

On 11 May, authorities arrested lawyer and media personality Sonia Dahmani, under Decree law 54, over comments she made on TV questioning claims by authorities that migrants are coming to Tunisia with the intention to settle in the country. On 13 May, a Tunis investigative judge ordered her pre-trial detention.Authorities also arrested two journalists on Saturday 11 May, according to their lawyers, they were questioned about their work and different critical comments they had made in the media. On 15 May, a Tunis investigative judge charged the two journalists and ordered their pre-trial detention under Decree law 54 ‘s Article 24 which provides for imprisonment of five years and a fine of 50,000 dinars (16,000 USD), “for whoever publishes content with the aim of violating the rights of others, harming public security or national defense, spreading terror among the population, or inciting hate speech”. They will stand trial on 22 May. On 13 May, three legal representatives of three different private media (radio and TV) were summoned for questioning about their reporting.

“Tunisian authorities must urgently reverse this significant backsliding on human rights. They must cease this judicial harassment and release all those detained solely for the exercise of their freedom of expression and freedom of association. People should have the freedom to express themselves without fear of reprisal,” said Heba Morayef.

BackgroundIn July 2023, the European Union signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Tunisia under which, among other things, the EU has agreed to provide Tunisia with technical support to deter Europe-bound migration, including €105 million with a focus on “border management” as well as nearly €1 billion in additional loans and financial support amid the country’s unprecedented economic crisis. This deal, which lacked transparency or parliamentary scrutiny, remains in operation. Amnesty International has repeatedly written to the EU’s leadership raising concerns over the repercussions of cooperation with Tunisia without a prior human rights risk assessment.



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