Hundreds of people were rounded up from Sfax and driven to the militarised Tunisia-Libya border zone this week.
A global human rights group has urged Tunisia to stop its expulsion of sub-Saharan African refugees and migrants and for humanitarian services to be provided to those languishing at the North African country’s border with Libya.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) made the statement on Thursday after hundreds of people were rounded up this week from the coastal city of Sfax and driven to Ben Guerdane, a militarised Tunisia-Libya border zone.
“Not only is it unconscionable to abuse people and abandon them in the desert, but collective expulsions violate international law,” said Lauren Seibert, refugee and migrant rights researcher at HRW.
At the Tunisian-Libyan border, people from African countries told Al Jazeera they were being forced to drink seawater to survive, while Libyan border guards were refusing to let them in.
“We don’t have water. We don’t have food,” a man said.
Reporting from the border, Al Jazeera’s Malik Traina said the conditions were “dire”. Among the people who had been expelled were women and children as well as injured people.
“They are in desperate need of some kind of help,” Traina said. “They want a safe haven.”
The expulsions occurred after days of violence in the port city in which one Tunisian was killed. Locals have complained about the refugees’ behaviour while the refugees said they have been subjected to racist attacks.
The people expelled are from many African countries, including Cameroon, Chad, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mali, Senegal and Sudan. Among them are 29 children and three pregnant women, HRW said.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Libya said it was able to provide some emergency medical assistance to the refugees and migrants.
Wadih al-Asmar, president of EuroMed Rights, said the refugees were stuck in a “no-man’s land”.
“What the Tunisian government has done violates all international commitments on the safety of people,” he told Al Jazeera.
Thousands of undocumented people have travelled to Sfax in recent months, hoping to get to Europe on boats run by human traffickers.
The growing crisis has put Tunisia under pressure to stop arrivals from Sfax as the European Union offers the country suffering through an economic crisis a prospective 1-billion-euro ($1.1bn) aid package.
However, President Kais Saied has said Tunisia would not be a border guard for Europe.
Tunisia has seen a rise in racially motivated attacks after a speech by Saied in February in which he spoke of the “hordes of irregular migrants from sub-Saharan Africa” who come to Tunisia, bringing with them “violence, crime, and unacceptable practices”.
His words were widely decried as “racist” and have since fuelled violent attacks against many refugees and intensified racial tensions in Tunisia.
According to al-Asmar, Saied has been using African refugees as a “scapegoat” to distract Tunisians from the country’s economic downfall.
“It’s a way to direct the population’s anger towards someone else,” he said, adding talks of “demographic replacement” risked provoking violence.