Migrants at a holding facility near Tunis have been on a hunger strike since April 6 to protest their continuing detention and mistreatment as well as the absence of coronavirus infection prevention measures.
To date, there are 780 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 35 deaths among the civilian population, while no cases have been recorded among the prison population.
Tunisia has been in a state of total confinement with a nightly curfew since March 21 as part of efforts to stem the spread of the virus. On March 31, President Kais Saied released 1,420 prisoners in order to reduce the spread.
Meanwhile, calls from human rights organizations to release prisoners have increased. United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called on March 25 for “relevant authorities to work quickly to reduce the number of people in detention.” Similar appeals by the World Health Organization, the International Organization for Migration and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees followed.
But despite these calls, migrants held in detention centers in Tunisia have not been allowed to return to their homes or other accommodations where they can quarantine safely.
Distressed migrant detainees held at el-Ouardia Reception and Orientation Center began their hunger strike April 6. They reached out to Al-Monitor to express their frustration that authorities had done nothing to improve their situation to keep them safe from the coronavirus. The detention facility, which lies on the outskirts of Tunis, is the subject of a damning report published Dec. 16, 2019, by the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES). The report outlined a badly run facility where migrants are detained without charge in unsanitary conditions, given meager food rations, and subjected to aggressive interrogation, nightly lock-ins and regularly forced deportations.
Rajabu Kilamuna, a human rights activist originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, has been living in Tunisia for the past seven years under asylum seeker status. However, on Feb. 14, 2020, a senior immigration official came to his house to take him to el-Ouardia. Kilamuna told Al-Monitor he was denied access to a lawyer, had his phone taken from him and initially was unable to make contact with the outside world until last week when he had access to a phone. “I told them that I knew my rights and they didn’t even allow me to call my mother or a lawyer,” he said.
Kilamuna founded the association Migrants sans Frontieres (Migrants without Borders) to help foreign nationals facing difficulties in a variety of issues such as opening bank accounts, setting up businesses or applying for asylum seeker status in Tunisia. Now he finds himself in limbo, unable to proceed with appealing his case and unable to return to his apartment in Tunis where he could sit out confinement in peace.
Kilamuna said that, over and above the dirt and discomfort of the center, he and his fellow detainees are frightened of the virus spreading. “We have demanded the authorities [give us] a protection plan from COVID-19, but there is no plan. They bring people directly from the airport or from the prisons without testing.”
He continued, “There are only two bathrooms between some 60+ detainees, several toilets do not work and we get only one piece of soap issued once a fortnight between three to four people. The mattresses are old and they smell, the bedding has not been changed in a long time and we are getting bitten by bugs.”
He appealed, “We are asking for our rights to be released; we are no longer accepting to be caged like we are in a zoo.” He also expressed concern that there are also six women amongst their group and one teenage boy. “We are afraid for this teenager living where adults are living.”
One of the six women detained at el-Ouardia spoke on the condition of anonymity to Al-Monitor. “We want to leave here. There is no water. There is nothing here to protect us. There is no heating; it is very cold at night and everybody is sick here. Where are human rights and women’s rights here in Tunisia?”
Another detainee, Kwame Kofi Stephane, from Cote D’Ivoire, served a four-month sentence in Mornaguia Prison for overstaying his visa. At the end of his prison sentence, he was transferred to el-Ouardia. “I came here to work and earn money, but I was arrested for overstaying my visa and served four months and two weeks before they transferred me to el-Ouardia,” he told Al-Monitor.
“People are starting to get sick. They are coughing. They go to the clinic [where medical personnel] only take someone’s temperature; they are not testing for COVID-19. They are not given medication, just a mask.” He said he is “very annoyed” about overcrowding and the lack of response from authorities.
Both Kofi Stephane and Kilamuna describe racist verbal abuse and a culture of financial exploitation of the detainees by el-Ouardia staff. Kofi Stephane said, “The guards offer to buy things from the shop like biscuits or yogurt, but they will ask for five times the normal price to go buy it. They are making a business out of me.”
Kilamuna reinforced this, saying, “They come to me saying, ‘Hey, Mr. Rajabu, give me 10 dinars, give me 20 dinars and I will give you your phone back.'”
FTDES spokesperson Romdhane Ben Amor told Al-Monitor that there were high-level meetings on April 7 and 10 between the ministries of Interior, Social Affairs, and Human Rights and Transitional Justice, the Ministry for Human Rights and Relations with the Constitutional Courts and Civil Society, as well as representatives from civil society — but no promise of action was given, he said.
On April 10, the FTDES published a communique signed by 34 Tunisian civil society organizations and 23 members of parliament demanding the release of detained migrants.
That same day, those taking part in the hunger strike in el-Ouardia moved from the dormitories to the central courtyard. Al-Monitor has seen videos of police talking with detainees, and Kilamuna reported that although not aggressive, the policeman said those sleeping outside would be taken to prison if they did not return the beds to the dormitories.
Kofi Stephane is also very concerned about the health of those participating in the hunger strike. “Some people are very weak; they cannot even go outside,” he said.
The pandemic is shining a stern light on the issue of migrant detention in North Africa. Executive director of the Global Detention Project Michael Flynn told Al-Monitor that “there is considerable pressure by Europe on North African states to stop and halt migrant/refugee movement [toward Europe].”
Author of the FTDES report Amal el-Makki told Al-Monitor that Tunisia has created a clear policy on migrants and immigration. Regarding el-Ouardia, she said, “There is a lack of clarity around the legal framework that regulates el-Ouardia and its activity. There’s little published legal or regulatory text related to the founding of the center.”
She added, “For detained migrants, the risk of infection with COVID-19 is greater when there are no preventative measures. And when authorities continue bringing in new groups of immigrants, social distancing is impossible.”
Flynn said governments “that take these people into custody are responsible for them. It is not just about just releasing [them], but finding a solution where they can be taken care of, where they can do social distancing.”
As the fifth week of confinement in Tunisia begins, Flynn warned, “I think there is a disaster waiting to happen, and I think they need to find a solution.”
Minister of Human Rights and Relations with the Constitutional Courts and Civil Society Ayechi Hammami said that of the 53 migrant detainees, the Moroccan government is arranging for the 22 Moroccans detained at el-Ouardia to be repatriated. For those of sub-Saharan origin, there is still no concrete solution.
Al-Monitor pressed the minister about the status of those migrants who have persistent coughs, and he said, "It is true. There is a lack of testing in Tunisia for COVID-19; there is a doctor in the clinic of el-Ouardia, and it is he who decides to test or not to test." Spokesperson for FTDES Romdhane Ben Amor said, "Officially there are no cases of COVID-19, but the clinic at el-Ouardia doesn't have the capacity to test for COVID-19."