Stranded in a Strange Land, and Waiting for Death

For nearly three weeks now, more than 1,000 men, women and children from Africa have been clinging to survival in the no-man’s lands at Tunisia’s borders. A few scrubby trees offer fitful shade, videos taken by migrants show, and border guards from neighboring Libya and Tunisian aid workers occasionally drop off water and a bit of bread.

Otherwise, there is nothing.

Tunisian authorities dumped the African migrants there after rounding them up in the Mediterranean port of Sfax, hours away, where growing numbers have boarded boats to nearby Europe this year. Many were beaten by officers; a few have died in the desert, where there is little to no medical care, migrants and rights groups say.

Over and over, they sent pleas for help from the dwindling number of phones they managed to keep charged:

“Please help us. We are dying,” one wrote to The New York Times on Saturday. “We don’t have any food and water,” begged another. “We are stranded. If there’s any way you can help us …”

By Sunday, the text messages had stopped.

With migration to Europe at its said.

“I’m hoping that I’ll close my eyes and find myself in Italy,” said Mohamed Houidi, 44, a Tunisian fisherman in Sfax saving up for the smuggler’s fee. “There’s no hope, no horizon, no future in this country.”

It is also under Mr. Saied that Tunisia has become the Mediterranean’s top springboard for migrants. E.U. data shows Tunisia is this year’s biggest contributor to the main migratory route to Europe, the central Mediterranean, where arrivals by boat have more than doubled since last year.

And every week brings more news of migrants drowning off Tunisian shores.

A cemetery in Sfax, where unmarked graves are believed to belong to migrants.Credit…Laura Boushnak for The New York Times

Expanding smuggling networks and the perception that Tunisia makes for safer transit than Libya have bolstered the number of boats heading for Italy. But departures spiked after Mr. Saied asserted in February that sub-Saharan African migrants were part of a secretive effort to turn Tunisia into “a purely African country with no affiliation to the Arab and Islamic nations.”

The speech echoed the racist “great replacement” theory — popular with the European and American far right — which holds that there is a conspiracy to replace white populations with others. Almost immediately, Black migrants in several cities, some studying or working legally, were evicted, fired, assaulted, robbed or forced into hiding, migrants and rights activists said.

Mr. Saied has denied his speech was racist, but he has signaled that migrants are not welcome to stay.

“Tunisia is not a furnished apartment for sale or rent,” he said this month.

And it remains unclear to what extent the Tunisian president is willing to work with Europe to curb migration. He said this month that Tunisia “does not accept guarding borders other than its own.”

A poster near a market in Kairouan, Tunisia shows President Kais Saied last year.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Such pronouncements have exasperated some European donors. European officials and diplomats say Tunisia is capable of stopping the crossings from Sfax, but may be stalling for leverage.

Though Tunisia seems in no rush to finalize the I.M.F. agreement, on which most of the promised E.U. aid is contingent, the bloc is already rushing more than $200 million to Tunis.

Others argue Mr. Saied is simply trying to rescue his sinking popularity by loudly rejecting Western influence and scapegoating migrants.

Now, migrants in Sfax are once again being evicted and assaulted, rights groups say. Many, they say, have headed for the sea.

Crumpled boats used by migrants at a small port outside of Sfax.Credit…Laura Boushnak for The New York Times

Imen Blioua contributed reporting from Sfax and Tunis, Tunisia; and Matina Stevis-Gridneff and Monika Pronczuk from Brussels.

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