Officially, the El Ouardia migrant centre in Tunis is meant to serve as a reception centre to “welcome and orient” new arrivals to Tunisia. However, what is actually happening there has long remained opaque because NGOs and lawyers aren’t allowed access. The FRANCE 24 Observers decided to investigate the nightmarish conditions inside. Our source told us that about fifty migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, most of them Black Africans, are being arbitrarily detained in the squalid centre.
Léopold (not his real name) came from the Ivory Coast to Tunisia several years ago to attend university. When he graduated, he decided to stay and work in the country. He also got married and had a child. However, Léopold was not a legal resident of the country where he had made his home. And so, in 2021, he began sorting out his papers and regularising his situation.
However, before Léopold was able to finish the process, he was arrested alongside several other Ivorians when police raided the headquarters of the Association of active Ivoirians in Sfax (AIVAS) on August 21, 2021. He was placed in detention in Tunis.
‘There is a difference between what the judicial system decides and what the border police do’
A judge at the Ariana tribunal said that Léopold should be released on July 22, 2022. However, instead of being allowed to return home to his family, police brought him to the El Ouardia migrant centre in Tunis, where he has been arbitrarily detained ever since. He has received no legal or administrative support.
According to a judge, I was freed last summer. But there is a difference between what the judicial system decides and what the border police do.
From the moment I stepped into the migrant centre, I realised that the guards there were ready to harm us and it gave me a good indication of what to expect during my stay there. They spit on us, they called us “kahlouch” [Editor’s note: a derogatory term for Black people in North African Arabic] or “guirguira” [Editor’s note: a word that is supposed to imitate the sounds made by a monkey].
“Tunisia is our country, we’ll do what we want with you,” the guards told us.
This video was filmed from the back of a police car on February 27 by a person being taken, along with others, from Mornaguia Prison to the El Ouardia migrant centre. “We don’t know where they are taking us,” the man says. He was arrested along with others on February 13 during a campaign to arrest Black Africans.
Most of the people detained in the centre don’t want to go back to their countries of origin, but they are also being denied their freedom. I came to study in Tunis and then started working there. My family and my child are in Tunisia, I don’t plan on going back [to my home country].
Since February, police in Tunisia have been carrying out a campaign of violence and arrests of Black African migrants living in Tunisia. The campaign intensified in mid-February when Tunisian President Kais Saied called for the deportation of the “hoards of clandestine migrants” in the country.
>> Watch on The Observers: The growing xenophobic violence against sub-Saharan migrants in Tunisia
‘Many of us were transferred to the centre from Mornaguia Prison because there is no room there’
Before the arrests began in February, there weren’t many of us in the centre. But since then, we’ve seen many people brought to El Ouardia even after a judge has ordered their release – like me. There are also migrants transferred to the centre after spending months in prison.
There are about fifty men in the centre and four women.
Many of us were transferred to the centre from Mornaguia Prison because there is no room there. One of the people who was detained there said that he spent six nights without a bunk, so, here, we take turns sleeping.
There are so many of us in the dormitories. It’s chaotic. There are a lot of sick people who then spread their illnesses to others. A number of people ill with COVID were transferred here without ever being given a test.
In this video, a group of Black African migrants in Tunisia call for help from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in this video posted on February 26.
‘What happens in the centre rarely gets out’
Since I’ve been here, we’ve called on the authorities several times to give us papers. On February 27, those of us detained here in El Ouardia held a protest, calling on the UN High Commissioner to take an interest in our plight.
Even though the centre is run by the National Guard [known as the gendarmerie], when we started protesting, they brought the border police in to shut down the protest. They handcuffed us, stripped us and beat us savagely. Some of the men here got terrible injuries including wounds and dislocated shoulders.
But what happens in the centre rarely gets out.
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This man was transferred from Mornaguia Prison to the El Ouardia migrant centre. He protested the morning of February 27 along with other people detained at the centre, calling for restoration of their rights and freedom. “The police were deployed this morning to prevent us [from protesting]. They say that we aren’t in prison, but they are lying to us,” he said.
‘Officially, it’s a reception centre, though it functions like a detention centre’
The number of detainees fluctuates in the El Ouardia “Reception and Orientation Centre” – as it is officially known – according to Romdhane Ben Amor, the spokesperson for the Tunisian Forum of Economic and Social Rights.
There are migrant centres in each region in Tunisia. However, the El Ouardia centre is the only one run by the ministry of the interior, which means that it is the only one where migrants are being arbitrarily detained in this extreme way.
Ben Amor explained:
The Tunisian National Guard, and thus the ministry of the interior, transfers migrants to this centre from prisons and other detention centres before either deporting them or liberating them. According to the latest figures from the World Organisation Against Torture, one of the only NGOs that has managed to access this centre, 51 people are currently being detained there.
Between 2011 and 2013, the centre was open to humanitarian organisations. However, since 2013, only organisations that have an agreement with the Ministry of the Interior have been able to access it.
And, since July 25, 2021 [Editor’s note: the date when President Kais Saied suspended parliament], the centre has only been used for detaining migrants and operates at maximum capacity.
In this video, filmed on February 27, an Ivorian man shows the injuries inflicted on him by border police. “They stripped us to beat us, they beat us like dogs,” says the man.
The legal status of El Ouardia centre isn’t completely clear. Officially, it’s a reception centre, though it functions like a detention centre.
‘It’s like they are in prison without any hope of getting out or getting a decision’
There’s also another aspect of how the El Ouardia centre operates that remains unclear. At El Ouardia, detention and liberation are administrative matters and not judicial. That means that a detainee can not appeal their case or ask for judicial support, like help from a lawyer. On the contrary, the decision to detain the person is taken by public servant. There is no guarantee that the person can contest the decision.
Unfortunately, the detention is arbitrary and the migrants who are detained have no information about when they might be released. As if they were in a prison, without any hope of getting out or judgment.
This video filmed in the El Ouardia migrant centre in March 2020 shows officials treating migrants roughly and grouping them together before deporting them to the border with Algeria.
When the people detained in the migrant centre try to insist that they have rights, they are met with violence, but that isn’t new. These police were transferred to El Ouardia in a punitive role. They aren’t used to working with migrant populations and use violence as a response to everything.
The Tunis administrative tribunal declared in 2020 that the way that people were detained in the centre was illegal. And even though the Ministry of the Interior promised reforms under the Mechichi government, nothing has changed since.