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Rights groups say Tunisia expels migrants into the desert, where some have died

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Human rights groups say the Tunisian government has driven African migrants into the desert that borders Libya and left them without food or water. This is the testimony from migrants from Cameroon, Sudan and other African countries, and activists say dozens have died in the dunes. NPR's Ruth Sherlock has the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Desert all around them, huddling under the only tree, desperate families beg for water.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Water. Water. Water. Water.

SHERLOCK: One man struggles for breath.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: "People are dying," says another. This video was shared by Human Rights Watch, who says Tunisia has forced over 1,300 African migrants into the desert between Tunisia and Libya and left them there. Tunisia has said it allows legal immigration and denies these claims of dumping migrants, calling it misinformation. But the accounts of men like Mbengue Nyimbilo from Cameroon challenge that.

MBENGUE NYIMBILO: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: He says Tunisian police arrested him and his wife, Matyla Dosso, and their 6-year-old daughter, Marie.

NYIMBILO: (Through interpreter) They beat us. They broke our phones and took away our IDs. They loaded us into a pickup truck and drove us into the desert. They told us to go to Libya and never to return to Tunisia. They said this is not a country for Blacks.

SHERLOCK: The family became separated when Nyimbilo collapsed in the extreme heat but told his wife and daughter to go on with others. He was later found by two Sudanese migrants who gave him water, and he did eventually reach Libya. There, he excitedly searched for Matyla and Marie.

NYIMBILO: (Through interpreter) I wanted to surprise them. When they had left me, I was in such a desperate state that we didn't think we'd see each other again. I thought I was going to die.

SHERLOCK: But for days, Nyimbilo couldn't find them.

NYIMBILO: (Through interpreter) Then a friend showed me the photo on his phone.

SHERLOCK: The photo, published on a Facebook page, showed his wife and daughter dead in the desert. Six-year-old Marie is still curled in towards her mom on the sand. Lost in the vast expanse of no man's land between Tunisia and Libya, they'd succumbed to the heat and dehydration. It was a terrible end to a yearslong effort to find a safe home. We were connected to Nyimbilo by a migration activist who's helping him reach journalists to tell his story. Salsabil Chellali, the Tunisia director of Human Rights Watch, says she knows of at least 28 migrants who've died in the desert after being expelled from Tunisia.

SALSABIL CHELLALI: The Tunisian police, the military and the National Guard have really abused migrants verbally, physically with beating, use of excessive force.

SHERLOCK: She says these expulsions of migrants are a consequence of President Kais Saied saying in a speech that Black migrants are part of a plot to overwhelm Tunisia and change its demographic makeup. This was followed by violence against Black Tunisians and migrants in the country. The European Union recently committed millions of dollars to Saied's government to try to stop an increase in illegal migration from Tunisia to Europe, but Chellali says Saied's statements actually fuel migration.

CHELLALI: So even those who were not planning to cross to Europe are actually leaving because they're fearing for their life. We collected testimonies of people that actually crossed to Europe after the speech because they didn't want to stay in Tunisia, even if before they weren't thinking about leaving.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIAL TONE)

SHERLOCK: We reach by phone a fisherman in the coastal city of Sfax who says he's seeing firsthand this rush of migrants to escape the country. He asks we only use his first name, Ali, because he worries that speaking with the media could get him in trouble with the Tunisian authorities.

ALI: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: He says migrants have left the city to hide out in rural areas until they can board a smuggler's boat.

ALI: (Through interpreter) They're living in the dirt under olive trees. They beg for money. They beg for food. They live in miserable conditions. I just saw a guy begging, and I was going to help him. But then a police car came by, so I continued on. I didn't want to have any issues with the police.

SHERLOCK: He says the migrants he meets are terrified and entirely dependent on the help of Tunisian citizens like him.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAMBLES' "TO SPEAK OF SOLITUDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.