African migrants gather outside the UNHCR headquarters in Tunis, Tunisia, 19 April 2022 | Photo: EPA/MOHAMED MESSARA
African migrants gather outside the UNHCR headquarters in Tunis, Tunisia, 19 April 2022 | Photo: EPA/MOHAMED MESSARA

214 men, women and children coming from countries such as Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea, and Ethiopia have for the past two months been protesting in front of UNHCR offices in Tunis, calling for their rights to be recognized. Alessandra Sciurba, a university researcher in Tunisia and former chairman and spokesperson of Mediterranea Saving Humans met some of them and listened to their story.

A total of 214 refugees and migrants, referred to as the "invisibles", have been protesting in front of the UNHCR offices in Tunis for the past two months to draw attention to their situation.

The protesters come from countries at war such as Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea, and Ethiopia, and they say they fled hunger, violence, and persecution and tried to reach Europe. Many of them say they have tried to cross the Mediterranean several times and several times they have been intercepted by the Libyan or Tunisian coast guards and brought back to land.

Those that ended up in Tunisia have got stuck in limbo: They feel ignored by the authorities, without ID papers or a job, and without the chance to go to school.

There are also those who were taken to Libya, and reportedly spent years in detention camps where they experienced torture. Having managed to escape, they arrived in Tunisia by walking and hoped to get refugee status.

Telling their story is the former chairman of Mediterranea Saving Humans and university researcher in Tunisia, Alessandra Sciurba, who recently spent time with the 'invisibles'.

'Italy cannot look away'

"Italy cannot look away," said Sciurba. "It cannot forget that it gave money to the Tunisian Coast Guard and of having been disinterested in what happened to refugees taken back to Libya and Tunisia."

"With the war in Ukraine, Europe understood that it is possible to welcome four million refugees in only a few weeks without anything ugly happening. Why, then, are these few thousand people coming from other war zones abandoned on the edges of a Europe that has shown that it can be different and better?," she asked.

Tragic stories

Sciurba recounted some of the stories that he listened to, such as that of a family of stateless Libyan Tuareg with a father, mother, and seven children -- the youngest of whom only a year and a half old. The entire family had tried to flee via sea to escape persecution but were taken back to land and then walked to Tunisia.

Another story is of Ahmed, a 14-year-old from Darfur, who said he left his home at age 12. His parents were killed and he spent five months in a Libyan prison that he reportedly managed to escape from in 2021. Captured by the Tunisian, he said he was taken back to Zarzis. He has a refugee green card but this is worthless in Tunisia. According to Sciurba's account, Ahmed wished that: "I simply want to be protected and go to school."

There also was a woman from Sudan, Renda, with two children aged three and one. Renda said she spent three years in Libya and tried to arrive in Europe four times. Taken back to Libya she was put in prison with her elder daughter. "They used violence against us and the children when we tried to escape and they didn't give us food," she said, according to Sciurba.


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