Hallucinations, thirst and desperation: How Senegalese migrants endured 36 days at sea

Senegal

The voyage from the struggling Senegalese fishing town of Fass Boye to Spain’s Canary Islands, a gateway to the European Union where they hoped to find work, was supposed to take a week.

But the wooden boat carrying 101 men and boys was getting blown further and further away from its destination.

No land was in sight. Yet four men believed — or hallucinated — they could swim to shore. They picked up empty water containers and wooden planks — anything to help them float. And one by one, they leapt.

Papa Dieye, 19, center right, talks to his father Badara Dieye as they look through photographs of his rescue on a cellphone, surrounded by other relatives, in Diogo, Senegal.
| Photo Credit:
AP

Dozens more would do the same before disappearing into the ocean. The migrants still in the boat watched as their brothers faded. Those who died onboard were tossed into the ocean until the survivors had no energy left and bodies began accumulating.

On day 36, a Spanish fishing vessel spotted them. It was Aug. 14 and they were 290 kilometers (180 miles) northeast of Cape Verde, the last cluster of islands in the eastern central Atlantic Ocean before the vast nothingness that separates West Africa from the Caribbean.

For 38 men and boys, it was salvation. For the other 63, it was too late.

Too often, migrants disappear without a trace, without witnesses, without memory.

As the number of people leaving Senegal for Spain this year surged to record levels, The Associated Press spoke to dozens of survivors, rescuers, aid workers and officials to understand what the men endured at sea, and why many are willing to risk their lives again. Theirs is a rare chronicle of the treacherous migration route from West Africa to Europe.

Senegalese fisherman Papa Dieye was struggling to survive on earnings of 20,000 CFA francs ($33) a month. “There are no fish left in the ocean,” he laments.

Years of overfishing by industrial vessels from Europe, China and Russia had wiped out Senegalese fishermen’s livelihoods — pushing them to desperate measures.

“We want to work to build houses for our mothers, little brothers and sisters,” he explains.

For the first few days, the voyage proceeded slowly but smoothly. On day five, the winds rebelled.

Papa Dieye, 19, prays in his father’s home in Diogo, Senegal.

Papa Dieye, 19, prays in his father’s home in Diogo, Senegal.
| Photo Credit:
AP

Tensions on board rose, explains Ngouda Boye, 30, another fisherman from Fass Boye. “When we could almost see Spain, the fuel ran out,” Dieye says. It was day 10.

Back in Fass Boye, relatives were beginning to grow anxious. The 1,500-kilometer voyage from Senegal to the Canaries normally takes a week. Ten days later, they had no news.

Migrant arrivals to the Canaries hit a record 35,000 people this year, more than double the previous year. For others, the migration journey has ended in tragedy. Entire boats have gone missing in the Atlantic, becoming what are known as “invisible shipwrecks.”

Spanish authorities routinely fly over a massive area of the Atlantic around the Canary Islands looking for lost migrants. But the vast distances, volatile weather conditions and relatively small boats mean they are easily missed.

The relatives of survivors and victims of the pirogue that was found adrift in the Atlantic Ocean on Aug. 14, gather on the beach in Fass Boye, Senegal, Monday, Aug. 28, 2023.

The relatives of survivors and victims of the pirogue that was found adrift in the Atlantic Ocean on Aug. 14, gather on the beach in Fass Boye, Senegal, Monday, Aug. 28, 2023.
| Photo Credit:
AP

Massive cargo ships passed the would-be migrants by almost every day, destabilizing their shaky wooden canoe-like boat, known as a pirogue. No one came to their rescue. Under international law, captains are required “to render assistance to any person found at sea in danger of being lost.” But the law is hard to enforce.

It didn’t take long for passengers to start pointing fingers at the captain, who was not a native of Fass Boye. “He did things like a sorcerer. He spoke gibberish,” Mr. Dieye recounts. Belief in witchcraft and the power of curses is strong across West Africa.

“They tied him up,” Mr. Dieye says. “He was the first to die.”

Into their third week, they ran out of water. There was nothing left but the ocean. Those who tried to quench their thirst with saltwater died. Those who took only tiny sips survived. The hunger tortured them as much as the thirst.

“Sometimes I sat at the ledge of the pirogue,” Bathie Gaye, a 31-year-old survivor from Diogo Sur Mer, Senegal, recalls, “so if I died, I wouldn’t have to tire the others — they could just push me over.”

Fernando Ncula, a 22-year-old from Guinea-Bissau, was one of only two foreigners on board. His friend succumbed to thirst and hunger around day 25, Ncula recalls.

When he opened his eyes the next morning, his friend’s body was gone. Others had thrown it in the ocean. He was the only outsider left, and became terrified he would be thrown overboard, too.

“Why are you not tired like the rest of us?” Mr. Ncula remembers being interrogated. They tied him up.

Unable to move, and without food or water, he fell in and out of consciousness for two days. Finally, an older man took pity on him and cut him loose. His savior later died, too.

Death seemed inevitable; waiting for it was unbearable. As they reached the one-month mark, people started to jump in a desperate attempt to swim to safety, or perhaps to put themselves out of misery. Thirty men and boys died that way, survivors say.

Two nights after the last men jumped, lights appeared in the sky. It was the Zillarri, a Belize-flagged, Spanish-owned tuna fishing support vessel.

“They were so skinny. I saw their eyes and teeth and only bones,” Abdou Aziz Niang, a Senegalese mechanic working on the ship, remembers. “How long have you been here?” he asked them.

It had been 36 days. Now these men — who were fleeing for Europe because industrial overfishing had made their livelihoods untenable — were being rescued by a European fishing vessel.

Finally, the ship received instructions: Take the rescued people to the closest port, Palmeira, on the island of Sal in Cape Verde, 290 kilometers (180 miles) away.

They were alive, yes. But at what cost? Relatives had invested in their journey to Europe, selling possessions to pay for their trip, hoping the young men would get jobs and send money back home. Instead, they would return with empty hands and terrible news.

Without jobs, the survivors are back where they started. They are still looking for ways out — even if that means gambling their lives again.

Among them is Boye. Boarding another boat could leave his wife a widow and his two children fatherless. But “when you have no work,” he says, “it’s better to leave and try your luck.”

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Video documents female genital mutilation camp in Guinea

The video shows four little girls, one in tears, in what is referred to as a “camp for genital mutilation” in Conakry. Our Observer says that this is the first time a video of one of these places has emerged. While genital mutilation is banned in Guinea, it is still widely practiced. In the wake of the video’s release, activists, including our Observer, have mobilised and authorities have responded to the pressure by opening an investigation into the matter. Authorities have made one arrest and are still searching for other suspects.

Issued on:

5 min

The video, which lasts just under a minute, shows four little girls sitting on the ground, in a row. One of them is crying, seemingly writhing in pain. There are also two adult women present – one of them elderly. Text in French appears on the screen reading “My mother worked hard this morning”. The person filming the video says practically the same phrase in Soussou at the start of the video – though she says “today” instead of “this morning”.

“Don’t cry, sit on the ground, be good,” the woman in black says in Mandinka to the little girl who is crying. 

“Look, the littlest girl isn’t crying, it is the oldest who is crying and she is also trying to cry as loud as possible,” says the woman in red to the same little girl, this time speaking Fula.  

We are only publishing an excerpt of the video. We’ve blurred the faces of the children and the two women.


 

“What gall to publish that”

The video was posted on TikTok the week of July 17. Negative comments immediately flooded the post and the entire account was quickly deleted. However, at least two women made copies of the video. 

Fafoune Konaté, who runs the TikTok account “Mme Diakité”, who has a lot of followers in Guinea, republished an excerpt of the video on July 19, featuring her commentary facing the camera. 

When contacted by our team, she replied:

The feeling that I had watching it… it was so strong. This little girl who was crying… I didn’t think that I would see that in the 21st century, I thought that mindsets were starting to shift. What gall to publish that. 

I underwent genital mutilation myself and it is something that you live with until you die. I was immediately traumatised seeing that.

A Guinean who lives in France – and wanted to stay anonymous – also saved an excerpt of the video, which she published on Snapchat. 

“This brought back horrible memories,” she said. “I published this video in a group for young mothers and a lot of people reacted. They insulted me and some people said that these women have the right to do what they want.” 

“There’s no doubt that this video was filmed in a camp for genital mutilation”

Kadiatou Konaté is the president of the Club of Young Women Leaders in Guinea, an organisation that works to prevent genital mutilation and forced marriage.

There’s no doubt that this video was filmed in a camp for genital mutilation, even if we can’t say for certain that it was filmed right after a mutilation. 

The girls are dressed in a way common for these camps. The colors might vary, but the style is the same — tops fastened at the back, then pagnes and scarves tied in their hair. Moreover, the way that the girls are all lined up on the floor is common, too – in these camps, all the girls undergo the process together.

Often, these camps are held during vacation at the home of a woman who will carry out the mutilation. She might have a dozen children there and they might stay up to a month. The woman feeds them and “instructs” them in traditional values like keeping your mouth shut and only speaking when you are given authorisation. However, sometimes there are lessons on good values for human relationships. 

Read moreThe fight to end female genital mutilation in Guinea during summer break

People and organisations who had seen the video contacted Guinea’s Office for the Protection of Gender, Children and Morals (Oprogem). 

Authorities arrested one person suspected of sharing the video in the town of Kindia. An investigation into the matter is ongoing, Dadou Camara, the prosecutor at the Kindia lower court, told our team. 

“According to the statement made by the person arrested, the video was filmed in Conakry,” he said. “We are keeping the person in custody because we have not yet located the women responsible for carrying out the mutilations. This video is a first, it is shocking, I’ve never seen anything like it.”

 

“Parents must understand that you can teach children traditional values without genital mutilation”

Genital mutilation has been banned in Guinea since 2008 but instances of the practice have not decreased, according to NGO Plan international. More than 97% of women have undergone this practice, according to the NGO. Kadiatou Konaté, of the Club of Young Women Leaders, explains: 

We mobilised because we want to at least prevent the people who make these kinds of videos from just uploading them online. The justice system has sentenced people in the past for carrying out mutilations but, often, people are given conditional sentences – often because the accused are elderly. But from our point of view, this is actually because there is still too much tolerance.

There are several reasons why genital mutilation is carried out. That could be for cultural reasons or tradition – some people say that their grandparents did it, people think they should do it. There could be economic reasons because it is a source of revenue for the people who carry it out. It can be related to ideas of dignity and honour. It’s also related to the desire of a patriarchal society to control the sexuality of a growing girl. 

Some people think that it will limit the risk of teen pregnancies. Some people think that husbands don’t like women who aren’t mutilated… People always find a way to justify their behaviour. 

Parents must understand that you can teach children traditional values without genital mutilation, because mutilation is abhorrent.

I do think that the number of genital mutilations is decreasing. It seems like the people who are doing it are hiding it and aren’t doing it in the open. More and more, people are realising that this practice can’t continue. 

Thank you to the Mandinka and Fula teams at RFI for translating the video.

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Amateur videos show Turkish police violence against African migrants

Amateur videos sent to the FRANCE 24 Observers team show police in Turkey stopping and questioning African migrants as part of a crackdown on illegal immigration. The videos, sent in by migrants from Senegal, Cameroon, Guinea and Angola, show officers shouting at the migrants and in some cases using physical violence against them. A Senegalese man seen in one of the videos being slapped by a police officer told the FRANCE 24 Observers he was in Turkey legally.

Issued on: Modified:

4 min

 

Turkish authorities launched the crackdown at the beginning of July. Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya said in an interview published July 9 that fighting illegal immigration is one of his main priorities, and that police in Istanbul and all of Turkey’s 81 provinces were intensifying their efforts to stop and detain people in the country illegally.

In Istanbul, police on July 4 started a series of evening and nighttime sweeps focusing on entertainment venues and public spaces. They reported detaining 3,535 people in the first week on suspicion of entering Turkey illegally, working without authorisation, or overstaying their visas.

Videos sent to The Observers by African migrants living in Turkey suggest that the police conduct is often violent and discriminatory.  

One video sent by migrants from Senegal and Guinea shows the police pinning down an African man in the middle of a crowd. The officers were not wearing uniforms, but they had handcuffs on them. The victim asked for his phone several times which angered the policeman holding him down. The officer shouted at him and then slapped him.

 


In this video, sent by African migrants to the France 24 Observers via WhatsApp and also posted on Twitter, a Senegalese hair salon owner is seen being slapped by a Turkish police officer after being stopped for an immigration check. The Senegalese man told the France 24 Observers his residency permit was being renewed.

 

 

 

The incident took place in Istanbul on July 19. By using Google Maps imagery, the Observers team managed to determine that it took place at the entrance to the underground mall AVM. Several Western African migrants living in Istanbul confirmed the location. 

The surrounding neighbourhood, Aksaray, is known for the abundance of African-run clothes shops and markets. 

‘Every time policemen see me they ask for my papers’

The Observers team managed to identify and contact the man seen in the video: Mohamed Preira is originally from Senegal, he moved to Turkey in 2019 and now owns a hair salon in Aksaray. He said he was on his way to his salon when he was stopped by the police. He told them he did not have a residency permit on him because it was being renewed. 

They took my phone, my money. They put me in a car and drove me to a spot where they let me go. Even they themselves know that they don’t have the right to arrest me. I can’t even file a complaint against them.

I filed my documents [to renew my residency status] and I was given a receipt. I am in the process of getting the documents so I have the right to live here. 

It’s not the first time I’ve been stopped. Every time policemen see me they ask for my papers. But these policemen were just racist. Now my whole body hurts. 

I have my own hair salon in Istanbul. I pay my rent. But they still harass me. It’s gotten worse. There are more and more check-ups. Now I’m thinking of going back to Senegal. Living in another country without peace, without money, it’s too hard.

The Observers received multiple videos showing the use of force by the police. One of the videos, also posted on Twitter, shows two uniformed policemen holding an African migrant while a third officer can be seen pushing his head downwards. As they walk him away, the third policeman apparently mocks the victim, clapping in his face. 

Several African migrants told The Observers that the incident took place in the Esenyurt neighbourhood of Istanbul. Satellite imagery appears to confirm the location, but the FRANCE 24 Observers team was unable to contact the man who was detained.

‘We were treated like criminals for not having the papers they refused to give us’

In November 2022 a report by Human Rights Watch found that migrants detained in Turkey without papers were often held in overcrowded detention centres, with inadequate access to legal support and their families. 

“Cédric,” a Cameroonian man who spoke to the FRANCE 24 Observers on condition of anonymity, was arrested in Istanbul in December 2022 while awaiting an update of his residency status. He provided the following account: 

There were 12 of us being held in rooms designed for six people. We were supposed to have the right to talk to our families, but they took our phones. The conditions were horrible. I saw a lot of suicides. We were treated like criminals for not having the papers they refused to give us. They don’t let you have your own lawyers. They only allow you to see their lawyers.

Cédric said he was allowed to leave the centre after two months and was given a document that only allowed him to live in Bartin, a small town 400km from Istanbul. But he didn’t stay: “There were no opportunities there and the people were racist, so I went back to Istanbul.”

‘Migrants of all nationalities face many human rights violations’

Mahmut Kaçan, a Turkish lawyer specialised in migration, says the country’s immigration system has become more restrictive in the past two years. 

For the past two years, whether you are a regular or an irregular migrant, asylum applications have not been accepted

In the past few years, and during the [May 2023] elections there has been a debate. The current government as well as the opposition claim that they will deport all refugees. 

Migrants of all nationalities face many human rights violations. I receive such complaints but since they are not properly registered, they are not able to file complaints and contact NGOs.



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Ebola Fast Facts | CNN



CNN
 — 

Here’s a look at Ebola, a virus with a high fatality rate that was first identified in Africa in 1976.

Ebola hemorrhagic fever is a disease caused by one of five different Ebola viruses. Four of the strains can cause severe illness in humans and animals. The fifth, Reston virus, has caused illness in some animals, but not in humans.

The first human outbreaks occurred in 1976, one in northern Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo) in central Africa: and the other, in southern Sudan (now South Sudan). The virus is named after the Ebola River, where the virus was first recognized in 1976, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Ebola is extremely infectious but not extremely contagious. It is infectious, because an infinitesimally small amount can cause illness. Laboratory experiments on nonhuman primates suggest that even a single virus may be enough to trigger a fatal infection.

Ebola is considered moderately contagious because the virus is not transmitted through the air.

Humans can be infected by other humans if they come in contact with body fluids from an infected person or contaminated objects from infected persons. Humans can also be exposed to the virus, for example, by butchering infected animals.

Symptoms of Ebola typically include: weakness, fever, aches, diarrhea, vomiting and stomach pain. Additional experiences include rash, red eyes, chest pain, throat soreness, difficulty breathing or swallowing and bleeding (including internal).

Typically, symptoms appear eight to 10 days after exposure to the virus, but the incubation period can span two to 21 days.

Ebola is not transmissible if someone is asymptomatic and usually not after someone has recovered from it. However, the virus has been found in the semen of men who have recovered from Ebola and possibly could be transmitted from contact with that semen.

There are five subspecies of the Ebola virus: Zaire ebolavirus (EBOV), Bundibugyo ebolavirus (BDBV), Sudan ebolavirus (SUDV), Taï Forest ebolavirus (TAFV) and Reston ebolavirus (RESTV).

Click here for the CDC’s list of known cases and outbreaks.

(Full historical timeline at bottom)

March 2014 – The CDC issues its initial announcement on an outbreak in Guinea, and reports of cases in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

April 16, 2014 – The New England Journal of Medicine publishes a report, speculating that the current outbreak’s Patient Zero was a 2-year-old from Guinea. The child died on December 6, 2013, followed by his mother, sister and grandmother over the next month.

August 8, 2014 – Experts at the World Health Organization (WHO) declare the Ebola epidemic ravaging West Africa an international health emergency that requires a coordinated global approach, describing it as the worst outbreak in the four-decade history of tracking the disease.

August 19, 2014 – Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf declares a nationwide curfew beginning August 20 and orders two communities to be completely quarantined, with no movement into or out of the areas.

September 16, 2014 – US President Barack Obama calls the efforts to combat the Ebola outbreak centered in West Africa “the largest international response in the history of the CDC.” Speaking from the CDC headquarters in Atlanta, Obama adds that “faced with this outbreak, the world is looking to” the United States to lead international efforts to combat the virus.

October 6, 2014 – A nurse’s assistant in Spain becomes the first person known to have contracted Ebola outside Africa in the current outbreak. The woman helped treat two Spanish missionaries, both of whom had contracted Ebola in West Africa, one in Liberia and the other in Sierra Leone. Both died after returning to Spain. On October 19, Spain’s Special Ebola Committee says that nurse’s aide Teresa Romero Ramos is considered free of the Ebola virus.

October 8, 2014 – Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian citizen who was visiting the United States, dies of Ebola in Dallas.

October 11, 2014 – Nina Pham, a Dallas nurse who cared for Duncan, tests positive for Ebola during a preliminary blood test. She is the first person to contract Ebola on American soil.

October 15, 2014 – Amber Vinson, a second Dallas nurse who cared for Duncan, is diagnosed with Ebola. Authorities say Vinson flew on a commercial jet from Cleveland to Dallas days before testing positive for Ebola.

October 20, 2014 – Under fire in the wake of Ebola cases involving two Dallas nurses, the CDC issues updated Ebola guidelines that stress the importance of more training and supervision, and recommend that no skin be exposed when workers are wearing personal protective equipment, or PPE.

October 23, 2014 – Craig Spencer, a 33-year-old doctor who recently returned from Guinea, tests positive for Ebola – the first case of the deadly virus in New York and the fourth diagnosed in the United States.

October 24, 2014 – In response to the New York Ebola case, the governors of New York and New Jersey announce that their states are stepping up airport screening beyond federal requirements for travelers from West Africa. The new protocol mandates a quarantine for any individual, including medical personnel, who has had direct contact with individuals infected with Ebola while in Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea. The policy allows the states to determine hospitalization or quarantine for up to 21 days for other travelers from affected countries.

January 18, 2015 – Mali is declared Ebola free after no new cases in 42 days.

February 22, 2015 – Liberia reopens its land border crossings shut down during the Ebola outbreak, and President Sirleaf also lifts a nationwide curfew imposed in August to help combat the virus.

May 9, 2015 – The WHO declares an end to the Ebola outbreak in Liberia. More than 4,000 people died.

November 2015 – Liberia’s health ministry says three new, confirmed cases of Ebola have emerged in the country.

December 29, 2015 – WHO declares Guinea is free of Ebola after 42 days pass since the last person confirmed to have the virus was tested negative for a second time.

January 14, 2016 – A statement is released by the UN stating that “For the first time since this devastating outbreak began, all known chains of transmission of Ebola in West Africa have been stopped and no new cases have been reported since the end of November.”

March 29, 2016 – The WHO director-general lifts the Public Health Emergency of International Concern related to the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

*Includes information about Ebola and other outbreaks resulting in more than 100 deaths or special cases.

1976 – First recognition of the EBOV disease is in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo). The outbreak has 318 reported human cases, leading to 280 deaths. An SUDV outbreak also occurs in Sudan (now South Sudan), which incurs 284 cases and 151 deaths.

1995 – An outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) leads to 315 reported cases and at least 250 deaths.

2000-2001 – A Ugandan outbreak (SUDV) results in 425 human cases and 224 deaths.

December 2002-April 2003 – An EBOV outbreak in ROC results in 143 reported cases and 128 deaths.

2007 – An EBOV outbreak occurs in the DRC, 187 of the 264 cases reported result in death. In late 2007, an outbreak in Uganda leads to 37 deaths, with 149 cases reported in total.

September 30, 2014 – Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC, announces the first diagnosed case of Ebola in the United States. The person has been hospitalized and isolated at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas since September 28.

July 31, 2015 – The CDC announces that a newly developed Ebola vaccine is “highly effective” and could help prevent its spread in the current and future outbreaks.

December 22, 2016 – The British medical journal The Lancet publishes a story about a new Ebola vaccine that tested 100% effective during trials of the drug. The study was conducted in Guinea with more than 11,000 people.

August 1, 2018 – The DRC’s Ministry of Health declares an Ebola virus outbreak in five health zones in North Kivu province and one health zone in Ituri province. On July 17, 2019, the WHO announces that the outbreak constitutes a public health emergency of international concern. On June 25, 2020, the DRC announces that the outbreak is officially over. A total of 3,481 cases were reported, including 2,299 deaths and 1,162 survivors.

August 12, 2019 – Two new Ebola treatments are proving so effective they are being offered to all patients in the DRC. Initial results found that 499 patients who received the two effective drugs had a higher chance of survival – the mortality rate for REGN-EB3 and mAb114 was 29% and 34% respectively. The two drugs worked even better for patients who were treated early – the mortality rate dropped to 6% for REGN-EB3 and 11% for mAb114, according to Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and one of the researchers leading the trial.

December 19, 2019 – The US Food and Drug administration announces the approval of a vaccine for the prevention of the Ebola virus for the first time in the United States. The vaccine, Ervebo, was developed by Merck and protects against Ebola virus disease caused by Zaire ebolavirus in people 18 and older.

October 14, 2020 – Inmazeb (REGN-EB3), a mixture of three monoclonal antibodies, becomes the first FDA-approved treatment for the Ebola virus. In December, the FDA approves a second treatment, Ebanga (mAb114).

January 14, 2023 – Ugandan authorities officially declare the end of a recent Ebola outbreak after 42 consecutive days with no new cases.

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Xenophobia grows amidst raids and repeated attacks on sub-Saharan Africans in Tunisia

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Tunisian law enforcement has launched a wave of repression against the country’s sub-Saharan African population, carrying out random identity checks and sometimes violently arresting them, leaving their children abandoned and offering no access to any kind of legal support. Xenophobic and racist sentiments have also been circulating widely on Tunisian social media, a toxic climate that recent statements by the Tunisian president only exacerbated.

Tunisian police in a number of cities carried out a campaign against the migrant community, arresting and detaining around 300 people from sub-Saharan Africa, including women and children, between February 14 and 16. 

Police in a western suburb of Tunis arrested the staff working at a daycare run by an Ivorian couple… as well as a number of parents who had come to pick up their children on February 16. The adults were brought to the police station, apparently so that authorities could check their papers, according to the Tunis-based media outlet Radio Libre Francophone.

Some of the parents who were arrested managed to get their small children to friends or family. Other children were taken into the care of staff with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. However, many of the children were taken from their parents and placed into a foster centre in a Tunis suburb.





Fuel was added to the fire when Tunisian president Kaïs Saïed said that sub-Saharan migrants were “a source of crime and delinquency” during a meeting with the National Security Council on February 21. 

‘It’s really, really difficult to get a residency permit for Tunisia’

Melvin (not his real name) works with an association in Tunis. He says that it is difficult and costly to get a residency permit in Tunisia. 

No one wants to stay in the country illegally but it is very, very hard to get a residency permit in Tunisia [Editor’s note: because of complex administrative procedures, about 60% of interns and students from sub-Saharan Africa don’t have a valid residency permit].

I know a lot of students who don’t have residency permits, even if they go to expensive private universities that cost more than 3,000 euros a year.

When you arrive in Tunisia, you are allowed to stay in the country for three months. After that, you have to pay 80 dinars [about 24 euros] for each month that you stay beyond that. So many sub-Saharan migrants live in poverty. So how can they pay these fees, not to mention other expenses?

Most of the community expected [the president to make] calming statements but what was said was shocking. We were expecting him to announce mass regularisation for the migrant community, so they could go home [Editor’s note: undocumented migrants who want to leave Tunisia cannot do so without paying fines for overstaying their visas].

And so many migrants accumulate these penalties because they can’t get their residency permit. And so they prefer to try their luck crossing the Mediterranean. 

@birdmansacko ♬ son original – Birdman Sacko

This is a video of a Guinean migrant filmed at the port in Sfax, a city in Eastern Tunisia. The person filming says that he and his friend hope to arrive safe and sound in Italy or in France.

Police arrested about thirty people from sub-Saharan Africa in the northeastern peninsula of Cap Bon on February 20 as part of what the government has claimed is a national security campaign to verify the papers of people from this migrant community, according to radio Mosaïque FM. This wave of repression continued when, on the morning of February 22, 35 people suspected of irregular immigration status were arrested and detained in Kasserine.

Even though Tunisia is often considered as just a transitory stop on the migration route from Africa to Europe, about 21,466 people from sub-Saharan live there, according to the Tunisian National Institute of Statistics. However, many other groups, including NGOs who work with migrants, believe the number is actually much higher. 

‘We don’t have any news about the mothers. Did they go before a judge? Why were they arrested?’

Daoud (not his real name) is originally from sub-Saharan Africa, though we are keeping his name and his country of origin anonymous to protect his identity. He has been living in Sfax, the economic capital of Tunisia, for several years but has friends living in Tunis.

He was terrified when he heard that two of his female friends, who are related and both have small children, went out to get groceries on February 14 and never came back. Afraid, Daoud called another friend living in the same Tunis neighbourhood, only to get no response. 

Considering the sickening situation in Tunis and especially in the neighborhood where they were living, I wanted to make sure they were safe. I contacted dozens of people who might know where [my three friends] were. Finally, I talked to someone on the morning of February 15 who said that they had all been detained. The two women were taken to Raoued and detained there. Same for my friend, who was arrested in a café. 

The two women are both mothers with tiny children. When the mothers were arrested, their daughters, aged just one and two years old, were left at home alone, locked in the apartment where they were all living. It is inhumane to leave children like that.

A family from the Ivory Coast, including two mothers (wearing red), were arrested on February 14 and detained in Raoued, a Tunis suburb. Photo sent by our Observer, “Daoud”

When Daoud realized that the babies were home alone, locked in the flat, he did everything he could to save them, even though he was miles away. Along with assistance from the landlord, a friend managed to break a window and get into the flat.  

We went to the police station to plead for the mothers to be released but the Ariana tribunal said that the two women needed to pay their debts because both of them had irregular status. Finally, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees took over care of the baby girls. 

Right now, we still have no news of the mothers. Did they go before a judge? Why were they arrested?

There have been other cases where parents have had to get a lawyer in order to regain custody of children placed in detention. We’ve also heard of other children being placed in a foster centre without access to their parents. 

A number of Tunisian organisations published a joint statement, denouncing the campaign of abusive arrests as well as comments made by officials that they considered “dangerous and inciting hate towards migrants from sub-Saharan Africa”, as well as the random identity checks and lack of access to legal support. The associations also called on the authorities to release all of the people who had been arrested and put an end to these “systematic arbitrary arrests”. 

In this toxic climate perpetuated by the authorities, many members of the Tunisian public have felt emboldened to intimidate or even assault people from sub-Saharan Africa.  

This woman from sub-Saharan Africa was attacked and left with a bleeding injury to the head on February 14 in a neighbourhood in the town of Sfax. Associations of Ivorians in Tunisia said that she was attacked by the young men you see in this video.
This woman from sub-Saharan Africa was attacked and left with a bleeding injury to the head on February 14 in a neighbourhood in the town of Sfax. Associations of Ivorians in Tunisia said that she was attacked by the young men you see in this video. Screengrab/ Maghreb Ivoire TV

‘When police see someone is from sub-Saharan Africa, then that is enough for them to be arrested in the street or on public transport or even at work’

Daoud continued:

In the neighborhoods where people from sub-Saharan Africa live, there are often groups of young Tunisians who gather outside of the buildings where migrants live. I advised a young woman I know to move for her safety. 

When police see someone is from sub-Saharan Africa, then that is enough for them to be arrested in the street or on public transport or even at work.

In fact, it is almost impossible for people to even leave Tunis without having their papers checked. 

‘I’ve noticed a palpable fear of Black people in Tunisia’

Moreover, the Tunisian Nationalist Party (Parti nationaliste tunisien), which has been in existence since 2018 has been carrying out a campaign to “raise awareness” about what they call the “sub-Saharan invasion” into certain neighbourhoods in Tunis and Sfax. 

These Facebook posts call on Tunisians to refrain from renting to people from sub-Saharan Africa or hiring them. In the comments section, there are lots of xenophobic and racist comments as well as comments from sympathisers to the cause who say they want to help apply this locally.
These Facebook posts call on Tunisians to refrain from renting to people from sub-Saharan Africa or hiring them. In the comments section, there are lots of xenophobic and racist comments as well as comments from sympathisers to the cause who say they want to help apply this locally. Observers

The party also draws from the “great replacement theory“, championed by the extreme right in both Europe and the United States. 

A petition launched by the Tunisian Nationalist Party has collected nearly a thousand signatures. The petition demands the expulsion of undocumented migrants, the repeal of a law related to the fight against racial discrimination, as well as a requirement for all sub-Saharans to have a visa to enter Tunisia.
A petition launched by the Tunisian Nationalist Party has collected nearly a thousand signatures. The petition demands the expulsion of undocumented migrants, the repeal of a law related to the fight against racial discrimination, as well as a requirement for all sub-Saharans to have a visa to enter Tunisia. Tunisian Nationalist Party

Daoud continued: 

This party’s campaign to “raise awareness” has contributed to the hatred towards people from sub-Saharan Africa. Members of the party go to cafés, metro stations or to “louages” [Editor’s note: shared taxis for inter-urban transport] to “raise awareness”, essentially spreading hate about people from sub-Saharan Africa. I understand the country is experiencing a difficult economic period but it isn’t the presence of sub-Saharans in Tunisia that has caused that. 

They have a racist ideology. This is dangerous because political figures like the president indirectly encourage violence, which could lead to actual acts. I’ve noticed a palpable fear of Black people in Tunisia. Even at work, my colleagues refuse to drink the same water as me.

The FRANCE 24 Observers team attempted to reach the spokesperson for the ministry of the interior for a comment but did not get a response. We will update this page if we do. 

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