For almost three weeks now, more than 1,000 men, women and children from Africa have been clinging to survival in the desolate lands on the borders of Tunisia. A few bushy trees offer patchy shade, videos taken by migrants show, and border guards from neighboring Libya and Tunisian aid workers occasionally drop off water and some 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 increasing numbers have boarded boats to nearby Europe this year. Many were beaten by officers; some have died in the desert, where there is little or no medical care, migrants and rights groups say.

Again and again, they sent out 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 have no food and water,” pleaded another. “We are stuck. If you can help us in any way…”

By Sunday, the text messages stopped.

With migration to Europe at its highest level since 2016, the Mediterranean route from North Africa has once again presented a dilemma for Europe, where burning anti-migration sentiment played out in ugly scenes of coast guards drowning some migrants while letting hundreds of others drown.

It is in launching countries like Tunisia that has surpassed 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 only outsourced the ugliness.

on sunday, ItalyThe Netherlands and the European Commission signed an agreement with Tunisia pledging 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 out of the country,” Kelvin, a 32-year-old Nigerian migrant, said 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 spent several months cleaning houses and working in construction in Sfax, scraping by the smuggler’s fee for a boat to Europe. Then, he said, Tunisians in uniform broke down his door, beat him until his ankle was broken and put him on a bus to the desert.

The EU-Tunisia agreement continued over the objections of some EU legislators and rights groups, who accuse Europe of supporting an autocratic leader, the president of Tunisia, Kais Saied. Mr Saied, who has a record of vilifying migrants, has spent the past 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 jailed dozens of political opponents, intimidated the once-independent judiciary, restricted the news media and rewrote the Constitution to give himself more power, all to a muted reaction from Western allies.

Facing 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 are left without shelter or food.

The president dismissed reports of migrants being expelled from Sfax, claiming they had only received “humane treatment”. But the president’s claim contradicted testimonies, 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 passengers, even as European countries rush to upgrade the force’s equipment.

However, a large part of Europe is putting a stop to migration first.

“We have to be pragmatic,” Antonio Tajani, Italy’s foreign minister, said at a press conference last month.

For all its flaws, Tunisia’s nascent democracy after the Arab Spring was cheered and trained by the West. Now, with each new check written to Mr. Saied, his critics say that Europe and its partners in Washington are abandoning the experiment on which they once lavished care, attention and money, and as with other regional powers, sacrificing human rights and democratic values. for short term stability.

“If we had been more consistent in making it clear that we were reluctant to support political repression in the region, leaders might have acted differently,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat who, along with other lawmakers, is pushing to cut Americans. military aid for Tunisia because of Mr. Saied’s actions.

While the Biden administration cut some funding for Tunisia, it was reluctant reduce it further out of concern that the country will fall under Russian and Chinese influence and that increasing migration will weaken Europe.

European officials insist they can better combat abuses against migrants by working closely with the Tunisians. And Western diplomats in Tunis argue there is no point in withholding aid from Tunisia’s 12.5 million people, who are already facing shortages of medicine and bread.

But for some critics, Mr. Saied is a bad bet as a border police officer, more likely to drive people to Europe than lock them up in Tunisia.

“Said and what he does to the country is the a real driver of migration,” said Tarek Megerisi, a senior official at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Europeans are “exacerbating the situation. They don’t really solve it,” he added.

Mr. Saied has done little to correct Tunisia’s economy, which was stumbling even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine spurred a global inflationary crisis. He set aside a $1.9 billion International Monetary Fund bailout because of conditions he called “dictations.”

With the economic outlook bleaker than ever, more Tunisians came to Europe illegally last year than in any year in recent history, Europe’s border agency said. said.

“I hope I close my eyes and find myself in Italy,” said Mohamed Houidi, 44, a Tunisian fisherman in Sfax saving for the smuggler’s fee. “There is no hope, no horizon, no future in this country.”

It is also under Mr. Saied that Tunisia has become the Mediterranean’s highest springboard for migrants. EU data shows that Tunisia is this year’s biggest contributor to the main hiking trail to Europe, the central Mediterraneanwhere arrivals by boat have more than doubled since last year.

And every week brings more news about migrants drowning on Tunisian shores.

An expansion of smuggling networks and the perception that Tunisia makes a safer transit than Libya has boosted the number of boats heading to Italy. But departures increased after Mr Saied claimed in February that sub-Saharan African migrants were part of a secretive effort to make Tunisia “only an African country without belonging to the Arab and Muslim nations.”

The speech echoed the racist “great replacement” theory – popular on the European and American far right – which says 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, attacked, robbed or forced into hiding, migrants and rights activists said.

Mr Saied denied that his speech was racist, but he signaled that migrants were 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 wants to work with Europe to curb migration. He said this month that Tunisia “does not accept to guard borders other than its own.”

Such statements angered some European donors. European officials and diplomats say Tunisia is capable of stopping the Sfax crossings, but may be stalling for leverage.

Although Tunisia appears to be in no hurry to finalize the IMF agreement on which most of the promised EU aid depends, the bloc is already rushing more than $200 million to Tunisia.

Others argue that Mr. Saied is simply trying to salvage his sagging popularity by loudly rejecting Western influence and scapegoating migrants.

Now, migrants in Sfax are again being expelled and attacked, say the rights groups. Many, they say, headed for the sea.

Imen Blioua contributed reporting from Sfax and Tunis, Tunisia; and Matina Stevis-Gridneff and Monika Pronczuk from Brussels.

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