African immigrants queueing for aid boxes distributed in Tunis during the coronavirus emergency | Photo: EPA/MOHAMED MESSARA
African immigrants queueing for aid boxes distributed in Tunis during the coronavirus emergency | Photo: EPA/MOHAMED MESSARA

NGOs working in Tunisia have spoken out about the conditions of dozens of migrant held in a center in El Ouardia ''without knowing why they are detained'' and have urged the authorities to provide clarification on the matter.

In a joint statement, Tunisian civil society organizations have spoken out to the media about the detention of several dozen migrants in the El Ouardia (also: Wardia) center in an area south of the capital. The facilities are officially called a Reception and Orientation Center. 

Concerned about recent protests that broke out among migrants in this center due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the signatory organizations have called on the authorities to clarify the nature and legal basis of the deprivation of liberty in this center. 

An official letter was sent to the Tunisian government and the High Judiciary Council on April 28, the statement noted. 

Migrants unaware of legal basis for their detention 

On the basis of information collected, the organizations wrote, the number of migrants held in the center fluctuates constantly with releases and new detentions despite health risks associated with the spread of COVID-19. 

''All the detainees are foreign nationals and are unaware of the legal basis for their detention,'' the press release said. 

The organizations said that some of the migrants had been arrested in El Ouardia since they did not have stay permits and others for other reasons. The legal basis for their detention is unclear, however, the statement said. 

The organizations believe that the lack of clarity surrounding the center and the lack of information provided to those detained about their legal position has led to concerns that the arrests are systematic and arbitrary and thus against the constitution and the country's international commitments. 

Thus, the signatories to the letter and press release have officially asked the authorities to urgently clarify the legal basis for the deprivation of freedom of those detained in El Ouardia and to bring in "any measure to put an end to this detention if it is found to be lacking in a legal basis and thus arbitrary." 

Risks linked to COVID-19 

The situation is even more urgent for the detainees in this period of a healthcare crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Health risks are greater in detention centers in which social distancing and personal protection is more difficult than outside of the centers. This risk could grow more severe with the arrival of new detainees. 

Among the signatory organizations are: 

  • Lawyers without Borders (ASF)
  • the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES)
  • the World Organisation against Torture (OMCT)
  • the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD)
  • the Association of Tunisian Women for Research and Development (AFTURD) and 
  • the Committee for the Respect of Liberties and Human Rights in Tunisia (CRLDHT).
Amnesty International has meanwhile called on the Tunisian authorities to urgently release the migrant detainees held in extremely poor conditions in the center and to ensure that they have access to basic services.

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