For nearly three weeks now, more than 1,000 men, women and children from Africa have been clinging to survival in the no-man’s lands at Tunisia’s borders. A few scrubby trees offer fitful shade, videos taken by migrants show, and border guards from neighboring Libya and Tunisian aid workers occasionally drop off water and a bit of bread.
Otherwise, there is nothing.
Tunisian authorities dumped the African migrants there after rounding them up in the Mediterranean port of Sfax, hours away, where growing numbers have boarded boats to nearby Europe this year. Many were beaten by officers; a few have died in the desert, where there is little to no medical care, migrants and rights groups say.
Over and over, they sent pleas for help from the dwindling number of phones they managed to keep charged:
“Please help us. We are dying,” one wrote to The New York Times on Saturday. “We don’t have any food and water,” begged another. “We are stranded. If there’s any way you can help us …”
By Sunday, the text messages had stopped.
With migration to Europe at its highest level since 2016, the Mediterranean route from North Africa is once again posing a dilemma for Europe, where burning anti-migration sentiment has played into ugly scenes of coast guards setting some migrants adrift while leaving hundreds of others to drown.
It is in launchpad countries like Tunisia, which has overtaken Libya as the main crossing point for Africans and others dreaming of Europe, that European leaders hope to contain the problem.
But critics of the deal say they have only outsourced the ugliness.
On Sunday, Italy, the Netherlands and the European Commission signed a deal with Tunisia promising more than $1 billion in European Union aid and investment to stabilize the country’s crumbling economy and strengthen border controls.
“We all heard that the prime minister of Italy paid the Tunisian president a lot of money to keep the Blacks away from the country,” Kelvin, a 32-year-old Nigerian migrant, said on Saturday from Tunisia’s border with Libya. He declined to give his full name, fearing further harsh treatment.
Like other sub-Saharan African migrants, many of whom can enter Tunisia without visas, he had spent several months cleaning houses and working construction in Sfax, scraping together the smuggler’s fee for a boat to Europe. Then, he said, Tunisians in uniforms broke through his door, beat him until his ankle fractured and put him on a bus to the desert.
The E.U.-Tunisia deal went ahead over the objections of some E.U. lawmakers and rights groups who accuse Europe of buttressing an autocrat in the making, Tunisia’s president, Kais Saied. Mr. Saied, who has a record of vilifying migrants, has spent the last two years dismantling Tunisia’s democracy, the only one to emerge from the Arab Spring protests that consumed the region more than a decade ago.
He has jailed dozens of political opponents, cowed the once-independent judiciary, circumscribed the news media and rewritten the Constitution to bestow more power on himself, all to muted reaction from Western allies.
In the face of criticism, Tunisia moved some of the migrants in the desert to shelters last week and allowed the Tunisian Red Crescent to provide some aid. But rights groups say hundreds remain without shelter or food.
The president has rejected reports about migrants being expelled from Sfax, claiming that they received only “humane treatment.” But the president’s assertion contradicted testimony, photos and videos provided by the migrants.
Rights groups have also accused the Tunisian coast guard of abuses against migrants, including deliberately damaging their boats or beating the passengers, even as European countries rush to upgrade the force’s equipment.
Yet much of Europe puts curbing migration first.
“We need to be pragmatic,” Antonio Tajani, Italy’s foreign minister, said in a news conference last month.
For all its flaws, Tunisia’s nascent democracy after the Arab Spring was cheered and coached by the West. Now, with every new check written out to Mr. Saied, his critics say Europe and its partners in Washington are abandoning the experiment on which they once lavished care, attention and money, and as with other regional strongmen, sacrificing human rights and democratic values for short-term stability.
“If we were more consistent in making clear that we are going to be reluctant to support political repression in the region, leaders might act differently,” said Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut who, with other lawmakers, is pressing to slash American military aid for Tunisia over Mr. Saied’s actions.
While the Biden administration has cut some funding for Tunisia, it has been reluctant to decrease it further out of concern that the country will fall under Russian and Chinese influence and that surging migration will weaken Europe.
European officials insist that they can better combat abuses against migrants by working closely with the Tunisians. And Western diplomats in Tunis argue that it does no good to withhold aid from Tunisia’s 12.5 million people, who are already facing shortages of medicine and bread.
But to some critics, Mr. Saied is a bad bet as a border policeman, more likely to drive people toward Europe than corral them in Tunisia.
“Saied and what he’s doing to the country is the real driver of migration,” said Tarek Megerisi, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Europeans “are exacerbating the situation. They’re not really solving it,” he added.
Mr. Saied has done little to right Tunisia’s economy, which had stumbled even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine spurred a global inflation crisis. He waved aside a $1.9 billion International Monetary Fund bailout over conditions he called “diktats.”
With the economic outlook grimmer than ever, more Tunisians came to Europe illegally last year than in any year in recent history, Europe’s border agency said.
“I’m hoping that I’ll close my eyes and find myself in Italy,” said Mohamed Houidi, 44, a Tunisian fisherman in Sfax saving up for the smuggler’s fee. “There’s no hope, no horizon, no future in this country.”
It is also under Mr. Saied that Tunisia has become the Mediterranean’s top springboard for migrants. E.U. data shows Tunisia is this year’s biggest contributor to the main migratory route to Europe, the central Mediterranean, where arrivals by boat have more than doubled since last year.
And every week brings more news of migrants drowning off Tunisian shores.
Expanding smuggling networks and the perception that Tunisia makes for safer transit than Libya have bolstered the number of boats heading for Italy. But departures spiked after Mr. Saied asserted in February that sub-Saharan African migrants were part of a secretive effort to turn Tunisia into “a purely African country with no affiliation to the Arab and Islamic nations.”
The speech echoed the racist “great replacement” theory — popular with the European and American far right — which holds that there is a conspiracy to replace white populations with others. Almost immediately, Black migrants in several cities, some studying or working legally, were evicted, fired, assaulted, robbed or forced into hiding, migrants and rights activists said.
Mr. Saied has denied his speech was racist, but he has signaled that migrants are not welcome to stay.
“Tunisia is not a furnished apartment for sale or rent,” he said this month.
And it remains unclear to what extent the Tunisian president is willing to work with Europe to curb migration. He said this month that Tunisia “does not accept guarding borders other than its own.”
Such pronouncements have exasperated some European donors. European officials and diplomats say Tunisia is capable of stopping the crossings from Sfax, but may be stalling for leverage.
Though Tunisia seems in no rush to finalize the I.M.F. agreement, on which most of the promised E.U. aid is contingent, the bloc is already rushing more than $200 million to Tunis.
Others argue Mr. Saied is simply trying to rescue his sinking popularity by loudly rejecting Western influence and scapegoating migrants.
Now, migrants in Sfax are once again being evicted and assaulted, rights groups say. Many, they say, have headed for the sea.
Imen Blioua contributed reporting from Sfax and Tunis, Tunisia; and Matina Stevis-Gridneff and Monika Pronczuk from Brussels.