Report on the situation at the detention centre for foreigner of Al Wardia, Tunis (by Glenda Garelli, Federica Sossi, Martina Tazzioli), April 2015
The situation at the detention centre for foreigners of Al Wardia is particularly alarming. Hundreds of migrants are detained every month, without any possibility of legal support, ending up in a situation where they are completely at the mercy of the policemen who manage the Centre.
The prisoners with whom we were able to establish phone contact depicted terrible conditions at Al Wardia, due to their lack of contact with the external world, to the situation in the cells, to the pressure put on them by the police, to the blackmailing they are the target of, and to the lack of medication and medical care. Also in terms of food provisions and hygiene in the detention space, the situation is described as extremely harsh. The most worrisome element is the absence of a legal support, leading to a complete lack of regulation about what happens in detention.
Migrants detained at Al Wardia have only two ways to be released. The first one consists in paying their own ticket to be repatriated in their country of origin. We remark that in the Centre there are also Syrian refugees who, since they clearly could not go back to their country, are forced to buy a ticket to Turkey. Moreover, at Al Wardia also statutory refugees are detained—these are refugees who received their documents from UNHCR in other countries. The second way to get out of the detention center consists in being deported to Algeria. Deportations take place weekly, either at night or in early hours of the morning: migrants are removed from detention and taken to a place close to the Algerian border, near the city of Kasserine, where they are abandoned on the other side of the border, in a desert zone. People died in several cases, when they get lost in the desert before reaching an urban area. We were personally informed of the death of two migrants from Somalia with whom we were in touch during their detention at Al Wardia and who were deported as part of a larger group. We were informed about this situation by survivors of the deportation who called us once they reached an Algerian city. Very close to the prison for men there is also a detention place for women and children.
Close to the men’s prison, there is a detention facility for women and children. We could not establish direct contact with this place but were informed about its existence by Syrian refugees with whom we talked and whose families were detained in this other facility.
We came to have information about Al Wardia because a rejected refugee from Choucha whom we met during one of our visits to the camp and who had been detained at Al Whardia contacted us to inform us about the situation. E could talk with him and with other people at the center several times. Every time they talked with us migrants were threatened by policemen. We kept in touch with them also after they were repatriated or deported. We collected several stories; we publish here below only those we could record and transcribe.
Interview with A. after his repatriation (January 16, 2015)
Q: Could you describe the center where you have been detained in Tunis? We would like to understand if we could maybe do something to denounce this situation and to help other people who are still detained there.
A: Tunisian policemen arrest foreigners in the street, and they force them to pay the ticket for their own repatriation.
Q: Are there only migrants at the center of Al Wardia are there, migrants who were arrested in the street, and others who arrived directly from prison?
A: Yes, they are only foreigners, it is a center for foreigners. There are also Syrian refugees who arrived in Tunisia and also refugees from Choucha, like me for instance. In prison you have to pay for everything; if you want to have a mobile phone you have to pay 200 dinars. There is most a border police officer who works for the Garde Nationale, he is the one who organizes everything. After being detained in the Centre, people are deported to Algeria and, around midnight, they are abandoned in the desert, in the vicinity of the town of Tebessa.
Q: How many detainees were there when you arrived at the center?
A: New people would arrive every time. New people would usually arrive on Thursdays and Sundays.
Q: Where are they deported exactly, to which Algerian city?
A: As far as Algeria is concerned I don’t know exactly. What I know is that in Tunisia they go through the city of Kasserine. I know that in Algeria they are left by the police near a small town, just close to the border.
Q: So, is there an agreement between Algeria and Tunisia about these deportations?
A: No, there isn’t any agreement. The police drop them there clandestinely. They give them a bottle of water and a baguette, and they abandon them there.
Q: Is this what happened to the Somalians who were in jail with you? What happened to them afterwards?
A: Some of them got lost and died, while the Nigerians who were with them walked a lot but finally they ended up in Tunisia again, and came across some Tunisian policemen. As far as the Somalian people who were in the cell with me, they have been deported; policemen put a lot of pressure on me saying that if I didn’t have the money to buy the ticket to return to my country they would have deported me to Algeria, as they had already done with my cellmates.
Q: How long did you stay at Al Wardia?
A: Two months. At Al Wardia there were about 100 people, but we need to count also those who are in the other four centers. I don’t know exactly where these centers are, I know the Centre of Alaouina; there is only one doctor for all the centers so if you are ill you are told to wait your own turn, because the doctor has to go also in the other Centers.
Q: But is it possible to keep in touch with people outside when you are the detention center? Can you have a mobile phone?
A: Yes, but you have to pay. When I was at Al Wardia a friend of mine had the possibility to have a lawyer when he got in touch with you and you put him in contact with a lawyer. Nobody has had such a possibility before. The policeman told him that he had been lucky since, actually, nobody have ever had a lawyer before. The lawyer who entered the centre asked some questions and the director answered that the country belongs to everyone but that everyone must follow the rules. The police threatened the lawyer, saying that he would have had troubles if he continued to take care of my friend. When the lawyer left, the police came in the cell to threat my friend just because he had a lawyer and also some friends in Italy who were taking care of him and helping him. We didn’t understand why byt the police asked him so many questions about the fact that he was in contact with some Italians and about the fact that he had a lawyer. He was interrogated many times, and at the end the police told him that he had to buy his flight ticket, and to do that quickly, because they didn’t want a lawyer or other people involved. They told him he had to leave as soon as possible, otherwise they would have deported him to Algeria; this is the reason why he was scared and he asked you to help him buy the ticket.
Q: How many people were deported to Algeria when you were in jail?
A: 26 people, because they had not legal assistance nor the money for buying the ticket to be repatriated.
Q: Only men?
A: I don’t know about women, since they were in another facility nearby but I could not see them. But concerning men I know Tunisia is not a welcoming country.
Q: And concerning Syrian refugees, how do they arrive in Tunisia?
A: They come by plane.
Q: is this why Syrians are asked to go back to Turkey?
A: Some arrive from Egypt going through Lebanon, or arrive in Libya by boat. Here, in general, Visa have a validity of three months, and when your Visa expires you have to pay 100 dinars per month to have a temporary permit. If you are at the detention Centre in order to be repatriated you have to pay the entire amount, not only the cost of the ticket. As far as we are concerned, we from Choucha who have been living in Tunisia for a long time and without documents, we are almost obliged to try to go to Italy by boat. In Zarzis I observed how much money those who organize migrant journeys make. I took some pictures and I made some videos, and I wrote. I went also to Zwara, to see the smugglers. I established that it is young people who actually leave. But all my videos and my pictures, and also my technical equipment, are still in my room in Tunis. I was there when the shipwreck of 250 people happened, among which there were also many refugees from Choucha—Choucha was closed and declared to not exist any longer by UNHCR who also stopped taking care of the refugees and rejected refugees still living at the camp. UNHCR stopped taking care of them, Unhcr stopped to take care of us. We have been visiting Choucha for the past four years; the release documents—granting access to the camp—that UNHCR granted to us are not recognized by the Tunisian National Garde. This creates problems for us: if we run into the Garde Nationale we will be asked for our documents and then arrested.
Q: Did Unhcr use to tell you to go to Libya?
A: No, they didn’t say anything at all. They only used to say that we could not stay there, and that we had to organize by ourselves to go back to our countries.
Q: So you have some contacts with the people who were deported to Algeria?
A: I know the Somalian who were deported and also a guy whose name is T. He called me explaining that an Algeria policemen put migrants in jail and then, after six months, these people are deported to the desert between Algeria and Niger. Once arrived there, they were given 15 days for leaving Algeria, saying that if they didn’t leave by themselves and at their own cost, they would be deported. But there are other people who could tell this sotry better than me, the two Nigerians who were in Ben Guerdane. One of them, O. could tell everything that happens in these contexts, since he was arrested by the Tunisian police because and, since him and his friends didn’t have a passport, they were deported to Algeria together with the Somalians who were in my same cell at Wardia. They walked for a long time and arrived back in Tunisia and while some of the Somalians died. The Tunisian police arrested them again, but I think that now they are in Ben Guerdane.
Q: So, coming back to this episode, we know that two people died, but how did it happen?
A: They died from thirst in the desert. If we go with workers of the Red Star and Red Crescent, I am sure we can find the place in which these people died.
Q: Are there other people, beyond the Somalians, who died in the desert?
A: Yes, many. The system of the deportations to Algeria has been in place for a long time, well before I got in jail. Before the war, deportations were made towards Libya, but now, with the problems in Libya, people are deported to Algeria. People are left by the police in the proximity of Mount Chaambi, the place of Salafists and of the police fighting them. Mount Chaambi is near the city of Kasserine.
Q: Were there doctors in the prison?
A: There was a doctor who used to take care of women and children. But if you get something serious, you are taken directly to the hospital.
Q: And neither Unhcr nor OIM have ever come to speak with you?
A: Never. There were some young people who used to constantly call Alessandra who works for Iom, but Iom told them that they didn’t have money and that consequently they couldn’t help them. I have Alessandra’s phone number (Iom Tunis) on my mobile phone.
Q: And so were you in contact only with the police? But who was in jail among the people from Choucha?
A: I had UNHCR documents, the documents they gave us at Choucha when we arrived there.
Q: What could we do, according to you, to denounce what is happening?
A: We have to denounce what they do, we have to say that they organize raids in the streets and that, then, they take the people into the desert and condemn them to die there. This is not possible, everybody has the right to live. I gave my pictures to the newspaper “Jeune Afrique” because I know someone who works there and I asked to publish those pictures. I collaborated with Lorena Lando of IOM in order to try to understand how people who go to Libya get organized; I told Alessandra of Iom all the details of the journeys towards Italy and of the deaths at sea, and she answered that it was too complicated.
Q: could you explain us better how the situation in the prison is?
A: Sometimes the police was violent with us. At times they gave us the same food during the day, often badly cooked rice, or beans with meat. Always the same things. At noon rice, and in the evening couscous, or vice versa. Sometimes pasta without meat. I had always my water. Toilets are terrible, they are never washed and people could get ill.
Q: But are the cells different from one another?
A: People who have to be repatriated during the week pay the policemen to have better conditions and to be allowed to stay in a better cell, as the man from Ghambia you talked with did.
Q: So if people have money and pay, they are moved to a better ceel?
A: If you give them money, they put you in a better cell.
Q: But do they put you always in the same prison?
A: If you have money you can go in the better cell, but only for one week. When you buy the flight ticket you are put in one of these cells for two weeks up to the time of the departure.P People who are arrested could pay (for instance, someone who had a business and and so had a little bit of money, or Syrians who have a bit of money) for better conditions of detention, and are then moved to barracks in the vicinity.
Q: But is it still the same structure?
A: Always at Al Wardia, but not in the same building. Cells are part of the same complex but they are located in another building, in barracks. A section of the building is or the Garde Nationale, and then there is another building. Besides: since Syrians have a little bit more of money, the police increases the price and in this way they have to pay more, and they have to pay in dollars, not in dinars. Syrians have to pay 300 dollars. During the time I was there, the following deportations happened: 240 Syrians deported to Algeria and 180 to Turkey; it is more than 300 people in total—I will search for the piece of paper where I wrote all this information and I will tell you the exact details.
A: Thanks a lot for your help. We will try to do something. Anyway, let’s keep in touch.
Interview with D. (February 28, 2015)
Q: Do you know about status refugees imprisoned at Al Wardia?
A: Yes, sure. There was also a person from Choucha with status refugees who, at a certain point, decided to go to Libya to leave to Italy because there were no other solutions to his reinstallation. The boat has been intercepted by Italian authorities and then the Garde Nationale took migrants to the harbor of Sfax. After that, this refugee from Choucha, B., was put into the prison of Al Wardia.
Q: When did it happen?
A: I don’t remember exactly, but in March or April 2014.
Q: Did you keep in touch with him when he was in jail?
A: Yes, I also contacted UNHCR asking to help him, since he was a refugee. But the people at Unhcr’s office answered that they couldn’t do anything for my firend because he had done something irregular (that is, taking a boat from Libya and leaving the country clandestinely) so they could not help him. UNHCR treats us as clandestine people, hut we don’t have any other option than going to Libya and leaving by boat.
Q: What happened to your friend?
A: Not even Iom could help him to leave the country. We asked for some money from his friends and he bought him a return ticket so he could go back to his country. He was a refugee but UNHCR didn’t do anything for him.
Q: Do you know other migrants who have been imprisoned at Al Wardia?
A: Yes, also some Syrians, because my friends who are there in prison told me that there are Syrians with their families. Once a Syrian woman detained at Al Whardia posted a picture of her son—also detained there—on facebook; around midnight that day, the police arrived in his cell and nobody knows where he was taken. We refugees are scared; we are aware that if we are arrested by the police and taken to Al Wardia then we will get deported to Algeria. Before the police used to deport people to Libya, but now they deport migrants to Algeria. Some days ago I was at the immigration office in Tunis and the police asked me for my passport; I showed them my refugee document, the one given to me by UNHCR, but they told me that for Tunisia that document has no value and that I could throw it in the garbage. We are totally unsafe here, and we can be arrested by the police at any time.
Interview with R., an Eritrean refugee rescued by the Tunisian Garde Nationale in July 2013.
Q: When did you arrive in Tunisia?
R: I arrived in July 2013. I left Libya by boat with other Eritreans, from the city of Zhwara and then our boat after some hours started to sink. We remained seven days at sea, nobody came to rescue us. We called Italy, Italian authorities but nobody came. The seventh day we had been rescued by the Tunisian Garde Nationale that took us to Zarzis.
Q: And then what happened? How many people were on your boat?
R: We were 94 people, all Eritreans. When we arrived the Garde Nationale transferred us for some hours in a place in Zarzis, I don’t remember where. And then, after maybe one day, 60 of us have been moved to the prison of Oaurdia.
Q: And the others?
R: I don’t know, I think to Medenine. Yes, to Medenine.
Q: And why did they take you and some of your friends to Ouardia and the others in another place?
R: I don’t know, they divide us in two groups but I don’t know the criteria.
Q: Were you already a statutory refugee when you arrived in Tunisia?
R: yes, I got the refugee status in Sudan. And also some of the other people on the boat were refugees like me.
Q: How long did you stay in Ouardia?
R: More or less one month. Then, I called UNHCR saying that I’m a refugee and finally they succeeded, after one month, to release me. I think everybody had been released but I’m the only one who is still in Tunisia. The others went back to Libya and some of them are now in Italy.
Q: What the police did at the harbour in Zarzis?
R: They only asked me my name and surname, that’s all. And they took the first 60 people of the group, me included, and moved us to Ouardia.
Q: So, now do you have your UNHCR refugee certificate?
R: Yes, look, it’s this paper. But it’ useless in this country. I stay here in the peripheral neighbourhood of Tunis, aware that the police can arrest me anytime. You don’t have any right, here in Tunisia as refugee. When UNHCR helped me to go out of Ouardia, then they told me: it’s better if you move away since you cannot do anything here.
Q: Did they tell you to go back to Libya?
R: No, they didn’t say this. But they say that I have to build my life autonomously, since the refugee paper doesn’t give me anything here.