A group of Tunisian and international NGOs have issued a statement expressing their solidarity with migrants and refugees protesting against the UNHCR in Tunisia.
A group of prominent NGOs, including Alarm Phone, the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES) and sea rescue organizations such as Sea-Watch and Mediterranea Saving Humans, issued a joint statement on Tuesday (April 19), in which they said they "stand in solidarity with refugees who are fighting and protesting for their rights and dignity".
Refugees protested in front of the UNHCR office in Zarzis, a coastal city in Eastern Tunisia, for about two months, demanding to be evacuated to other countries, after reportedly being evicted from refugee accommodation.
Over the past few days, protesters have gathered in front of the Tunisian UNHCR's main office in the capital of Tunis too with the same demands.
According to the NGOs, 18 people involved in the protests were arrested by security forces and released a day later.
In their statement, the NGOs said that they believe that the UNHCR is responsible for the "escalation of the situation caused by the absence of dialogue with refugees and asylum seekers and deepened by closed-door policies and the use of challenging statements."
'UNHCR made situation more precarious for refugees and asylum seekers'
According to the NGOs, the protests have been triggered by the UNHCR reducing availability in the shelters for refugees, leaving many people without adequate support and a decent place to stay. The signatories allege that the Tunisian UNHCR's "only response [was] the suspension of its services and shutting all doors in their faces, while answering their demands in an inhumane and disrespectful way..."
Alarmphone, FTDES and their co-signatories said theTunisian branch of the UN agency's action in Tunisia, especially in the governorate of Medenine, had shown "[a] lack of appropriate assistance delivery to refugees and asylum seekers, slow file processing, and other shortcomings related to access to basic services such as health care, education, legal support, livelihoods, and financial, psychological, and social support." They argued that this "contributed to worsen the precarious situation of refugees and asylum seekers, in particular women and children."
The associations also criticized the EU for its attempts to reduce the number of migrants and refugees that crosses its borders. They said that they "strongly condemn the externalization policies by which the EU tries to keep refugees away from its borders, and where the UNHCR is more assiduous in protecting EU interests rather than refugees' rights."