They have come from across the African continent, from Burkina Faso, Nigeria, the Gambia, Liberia, Guinea, Senegal and Sierra Leone. They have escaped the war in Sudan, or conflict and drought in Somalia. They have fled corruption, targeted killings, religious persecution, crushing poverty or a lack of faith in government institutions. They seek decent healthcare, education for their children, or the rule of law and a feeling of security. Despite knowing little about each other’s countries before, they now find themselves branded as one group: “black Africans”. For many, it is the first time they have been so conscious of the colour of their skin.
Thousands are camped out on roundabouts, in parks, and under trees in Sfax, a coastal city in Tunisia. They chat, or sleep, or sit silently as the wind rushes past, waiting to beg, work or borrow enough money to be able to make the crossing to Lampedusa, roughly 80 miles away by sea.
Tunisia is now the main departure point for the Central Mediterranean migration route: what the UN has labelled the deadliest migration route in the world. About 10 times more people are leaving here in efforts to reach Europe than leave neighbouring Libya, according to Matteo Villa, a researcher at the Institute for International Political Studies. Sfax is a hotspot.
This is a microcosm of a global inequality crisis. These are largely people who cannot access visas or get on planes, so they are risking everything in search of a better life. Often they travel country to country, trekking or driving through the desert, risking imprisonment and robbery, and finding any small labour to earn money along the way. Many die before they get to the sea, which sometimes comes after years on the road. They will reach Europe only if they cross it.
The number of sea arrivals in Italy for 2023 is already almost at 100,000. In 2022, 105,131 people landed – the highest since 2017, when the EU began supporting the Libyan coastguard to intercept boats, in a move that implicated European officials in crimes against humanity. Now, eyes are turning to Tunisia, and serious questions being asked about what impact the EU’s ongoing desire to stem migration could have there.
Last month the EU finalised a deal with Tunisia, which was said to include €100 million towards “border management” and related activities. It has prompted something of a storm in Brussels, after European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni and Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte branded themselves Team Europe, standing for photos alongside Tunisian president Kais Saied. Back in Brussels, European Parliament officials accused the trio of being opaque and not accountable.
Saied, president since 2019, has been condemned for growing authoritarianism in the north African country of roughly 12 million people. His actions include orchestrating a so-called “democratic coup”, consolidating his leadership while locking up opposition figures. He also incited a nationwide wave of repression and racism against black Africans after accusing them, in February, of being part of a “criminal plot” to change the demographics of his country. At the same time, amid a devastating economic crisis, Tunisians are also among those crossing the sea – at the end of June, they were ranking as the sixth most common nationality arriving in Italy.
Tunisian authorities did not respond to an emailed list of questions and a request for comment.
In July more than 1,000 black Africans were reportedly rounded up in Tunisia by security forces and dumped on the Libyan border, with dozens said to have died. Among them were Ivorian woman Fati Dosso, and her six-year-old daughter Marie. Photos of their bodies prompted international outrage, though Tunisia denied large-scale expulsions.
Bodies have been washing up on the beaches near Sfax, too. On one recent hot day, I stood in a cemetery, on the outskirts of the city, looking at dozens of cement graves marked only with numbers. “They were found at land or at sea but are unknown,” says the taxi driver who has brought me there.
In the year 2023 up to July 20th, the bodies of more than 900 people were discovered off the Tunisian coast, according to the country’s interior minister, Kamel Feki. An average of nearly 11 children have died every week this year while attempting to cross the Central Mediterranean, according to Unicef figures released last month. More than 22,000 people have died or disappeared on the route since 2014 – and that number could be a large underestimate.
Yet new people continue to arrive in Sfax. Some survive off food given out by an aid agency; others say they are going hungry.
On a thin bridge, in a sandy park strewn with rubbish and dotted with mattresses or pieces of cardboard used as bedding, stood a 20-year-old from South Sudan. He wanted to study petroleum engineering, but conflict made it impossible, he says. He has been in Sfax for more than a month. “Many of my friends ... have died on the sea. There are so many.”
He would like to see more resettlement to western countries through the United Nations. But back in Tunis, when I visit a shelter for people who are being considered for a very limited set of resettlement places in the US, a Sudanese man tells me five have died in the sea, after giving up on the slow and uncertain process.
“How is Europe? It’s good? We are trying to get there,” said a South Sudanese 22-year-old, who has been in Sfax for three months. He explains he has attempted to cross the sea three times from Libya before but was caught and locked up. “Many people are dying in the prison there,” he says.
In South Sudan, where a war that erupted in 2013 led to nearly 400,000 estimated excess deaths by 2018, the man says insecurity continues, while there is also extreme poverty and regular flooding. “I need your help, something like water. I need your help. Even now I’m thirsty,” he appeals.
In an upscale neighbourhood back in Tunis, roughly 100 west Africans have been sleeping outside the UN’s International Organisation for Migration for months, saying it is the only place they feel somewhat safe. The vast majority are in their 20s, but there are also older people and children. They go out to find work or beg during the day, or shelter in tents and under plastic awnings, hiding from the sun, in temperatures that topped 50 degrees in July.
Several say that they lived in Tunisia but life became untenable after Saied’s comments in February.
“Everything just changed; it’s just like they sparked a light,” says Jaffar Mohammed, a 28-year-old from southwest Nigeria, who says he fled conflict and insecurity more than two years ago, and was imprisoned and extorted in Libya before coming to Tunis. He rented accommodation and found work in construction and cafes, before the backlash began. “It’s getting worse every day. That is the truth. It’s just like you’re sleeping with your friend and you wake up and see your friend with a cutlass ... We did not know that such hatred can come.”
It doesn’t matter how many soldiers they put on the border. We are millions. We are coming. Let me tell you the truth … Because we do not have any other choice
Mohammed is a welder by trade. He pulls up his brown T-shirt – which reads “London” on the front – to show me white scars on his arms, which he said were caused by Tunisians throwing stones at him. “I believe this is political, because I don’t have any clue how everything just changed,” he says. “We are not safe any more here, so we would prefer to die in the Mediterranean Sea.”
No matter what policies are implemented next, migration is not going to stop, he says. “Even as I am speaking to you my community [in Nigeria] is on fire. If you, like, kill 5,000 of us on the way, we are still coming. Because we would prefer to risk our life than to be killed like a fowl in our own country. It doesn’t matter how many soldiers they put on the border. We are millions. We are coming. Let me tell you the truth ... Because we do not have any other choice.”
A 25-year-old woman from eastern Nigeria sits with her jeans unbuttoned, her pregnant stomach protruding. She introduces herself by her first name, Gift, and says she has tried to see a doctor that week when she began to bleed heavily – the blood visible down the front of her jeans – but she still hadn’t received medical attention.
She says she has fled conflict, too. “The war came, they burned down my daddy’s house, they killed my father.” She doesn’t even have contact details for her siblings and mother now, after losing her phone on the journey. They are on the run, too, she says. “If you doubt that we don’t have war in our place let them go there and see it.”
“See these babies that are sick, no medication,” Gift adds, gesturing towards the wide-eyed baby who is only wearing a white nappy on the knee of a woman nearby. As a man approaches and pinches the baby’s cheek, the child twists his mouth, then starts to cry.
Lamin Kamara (29) is an electrical engineer who could not find work in Sierra Leone – one of the world’s poorest countries. That’s why he decided to set off on what his compatriots call the “Temple Run,” after a mobile phone game in which the player constantly tries to cheat death.
In a hoarse voice, he says his wife is following him to Tunisia, while some of his four siblings are already in Sfax. “My sister, I’m not scared of everything. The moment I said I wanted to take the country I leave my case to God. Anything that happens, happens. If it happens for me to die in the water, okay.”
“If these Italy people can send us here two ships, or three ships to gather all of us, let’s go,” says Mamoud Bally (24), who already tried to cross the sea twice from Libya. “Because we cannot be sitting here every day.”
Stephen Ikpie (36), says he fled Edo State in Nigeria in 2021. His family were herbalists, and he is a Christian, which he says has caused him serious problems.
“I wanted to give my life to Christ since I was 12 years old,” he says. He already paid 3,000 dinars twice to different Tunisians, who promised him a spot in a boat towards Italy, but the potential human smugglers “evaporated”, leaving him penniless.
“Please, let Tunisia know that we are humans, we are not animal ... This place is not good for the human condition.”
Nearby, shadowed by a line of young men who sat on a low wall, stand Mohamed Konate (20) and Moses Fornah (19), cousins who came to Tunisia together
They had gone to sea the previous week. The 8-metre boat, with an engine of about 30 horsepower, departed at 6am with 37 people on board. There was a smuggler organising the journey.
They spent six hours on the water, before they were caught by the Tunisian coastguard, who they say took their phones and money.
Some people were pepper-sprayed, the men recall. “[The coastguard] say we should leave their country,” says Fornah. “They beat us ... We cried and begged them, saying we wanted to go, but they said no.”
If I had work, I would work here, but here if you [try] to work they will not [hire] blacks— Mohamed Konate (20)
The two men say they have tried four times each to leave from Tunisia, paying almost €600 each time. Money is not refunded if the attempted trip fails. “That is the big problem now: we are out of money. We have to pay more money,” says Fornah.
“I don’t have hope now, just sitting, waiting like this, wasting my time. I don’t know what to do now,” says Konate. “If I had work, I would work here, but here if you [try] to work they will not [hire] blacks. If you go to the bank to collect money they will not give [it to you]. They say ‘blacks, no’. The racism is too much.”
“I have nothing,” says Fornah. “Even this cloth I wear, someone brought it for me,” he says, pulling at his shirt. “Look at my bed.” He points behind him, at an exposed mattress placed in the sand.
“They judge us because of our skin,” says Konate. “We ask ourselves why. Why do they judge us? Because we are all the same.”