Tunisia and Libya agreed Thursday to share responsibility for providing shelter for hundreds of migrants stranded for up to a month at their border, after dozens died in the desert.
The migrants, primarily from sub-Saharan African countries, had been driven to the remote desert area of Ras Jedir by Tunisian authorities and left there to fend for themselves, according to witnesses, rights groups and UN agencies.
Aid groups said three groups of about 300 migrants in total from sub-Saharan African countries remain stranded there in life-threatening conditions.
It is not known whether the agreement will also help prevent the arrival of hundreds of migrants in the Al-Assah area some 40 kilometres (25 miles) south of Ras Jedir.
Since the start of July, “at least 27 migrants” have been found dead after being abandoned in the Tunisian-Libyan border area and another 73 are missing, a humanitarian source told AFP on Thursday.
A spokesman for Tunisia’s interior ministry, Faker Bouzghaya, said during a joint meeting with Libyan authorities in Tunis that “we have agreed to share the groups of migrants who are at the border”.
“Tunisia will take charge of a group of 76 men, 42 women and eight children,” Bouzghaya told AFP.
He said the groups were transferred on Wednesday to reception centres in the cities of Tatouine and Medenine and provided with health and psychological care, with the help of the Tunisian Red Crescent.
Under the agreement, Libya will take in the remaining 150-200 migrants, humanitarian sources said.
The Libyan interior ministry announced the agreement to “put an end to the crisis of irregular migrants stranded in the border area”.
– Racial tensions –
In a later statement, it said there were no more migrants stranded at the border following the agreement, adding that joint patrols were being organised to “secure the border”.
On August 2, UN chief Antonio Guterres’s spokesman had said the world body was “deeply concerned about the expulsion of migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers from Tunisia to the borders with Libya and also Algeria”.
Racial tensions had flared in Tunisia’s second city of Sfax after the July 3 killing of a Tunisian man following an altercation with migrants.
Humanitarian sources say that at least 2,000 sub-Saharan Africans have been expelled or forcibly transferred by Tunisian security forces to desert regions bordering Libya or Algeria.
The Tunisian Red Crescent had on July 12 provided shelter to about 630 migrants found at Ras Jedir, as well as 200 others who had been pushed towards Algeria, non-governmental groups said.
But AFP journalists and other media reported that about 350 migrants had remained stranded at Ras Jedir in the following weeks.
At Al-Assah, hundreds of other migrants were seen pouring into Libya, with no access to food, water and vital supplies until they were rescued by Libyan border guards in early August, according to an AFP team there.
Until Wednesday, migrants had continued to arrive in Libya at Al-Assah at a rate of about 50 per day before being rescued by Libyan guards, a humanitarian source said.
The source said that “around 270 people” are now being housed at Al-Assah after the others were taken elsewhere, said the source who feared that evacuees from Ras Jedir might be sent to detention camps.
Libyan authorities have come under sharp criticism from the United Nations over reported violence against migrants, about 600,000 of whom live in the war-scarred North African country.
– Deadly shipwreck –
Both Libya and Tunisia are major gateways for migrants and asylum seekers attempting perilous voyages in often rickety boats in the hope of a better life in Europe.
Mediterranean Sea crossing attempts from Tunisia multiplied in March and April following an incendiary speech by President Kais Saied who had alleged that “hordes” of irregular migrants were causing crime and posing a demographic threat to the mainly Arab country.
Xenophobic attacks targeting black African migrants and students have increased across the country since Saied’s February remarks, and many migrants have lost jobs and housing.
At least 11 migrants died in a shipwreck off the coast of Sfax, court spokesman Faouzi Masmoudi said on Monday, adding that another 44 were missing and only two were rescued.
The distance between Sfax and Italy’s Lampedusa island is only about 130 kilometres (80 miles).
The United Nations has described the central Mediterranean migration route as the world’s deadliest, claiming hundreds of lives each year.
More than 1,800 people have died attempting the route so far this year, according to International Organization for Migration figures.