The Tunisian National Guard takes engines away from refugee boats and lets them drift in the sea. Human rights activists accuse the German government of complicity.
The EU and individual member states have been supporting the Tunisian coast guard with equipment and training measures for years. The aim is to stop asylum seekers crossing to Europe. With success: Following a sharp increase, the numbers fell again significantly in the summer. One of the reasons for this were pogroms against people from sub-Saharan countries, which were instigated by President Kais Saied a year ago.
At sea, the Tunisian authorities rely on deterrence. Boats carrying refugees are pushed away or even rammed, the occupants beaten with sticks and intimidated with gunshots. In several cases, the coast guard has taken engines from rubber dinghies and then left people adrift at sea.
This information comes from witness statements collected by international organisations and documented with photos and videos. They include the Alarm Phone network, the Forum for Social and Economic Rights in Tunisia (FTDES), the human rights organisation Oxfam and Borderline Europe.
However, the German government does not want to know anything about this and is instead spreading a dubious theory about the theft of the engines. In its response to a parliamentary question on measures taken by the Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) in Tunisia, the Federal Foreign Office writes that Tunisia’s coast guard has “temporarily dismantled boat engines in individual cases to enable sea rescue operations”. This is based on “media reports”, the answer states, but citing only one Reuters report from May of last year.
The news agency there describes how intercepted boat passengers “begged to be left to continue their voyage”, while others “tried to resist or evade capture”. In one case, the coast guard smashed the boat’s outboard motor with sticks. However, this was not done systematically, Reuters quotes a National Guard official as saying.
“The Tunisian coastguard’s partners, especially Germany and Italy, are adopting Tunisia’s narrative. We see this as complicity in the concealment of attacks on migrants,” said the Tunisian FTDES chairman Romdhane Ben Amor when asked by “nd”. The violent practices have been known since the end of 2021. Migrants intercepted at sea are also taken to the Algerian border or handed over to armed Libyan groups, Amor explains.
Markus Nitschke, who works as Humanitarian Crisis Policy Advisor at Oxfam Germany says it is remarkable that the German government does not want any information about the illegal behaviour of the Tunisian coast guard. “The human rights violations committed by the Tunisian coastguard against migrants have been extensively documented and are not all isolated cases.”
Clara Bünger, a member of the German Bundestag who submitted the parliamentary question, also criticised the response of the Federal Foreign Office (which is led by the Green Party) . Presenting the dismantling of boat engines as aid for sea rescue is “perfidious”, says the Left Party politician to “nd”. The government apparently wants to conceal the fact that it is “partly responsible for the crimes committed by the Tunisian coast guard”.
In fact, the German Federal Ministry of the Interior has been supporting the Tunisian National Guard for years in its operations at sea. Most recently, the Federal Police donated 12 inflatable boats and 27 boat engines to the Tunisian border troops. Germany is also financing equipment for a boat repair centre and appropriate training.
However, in its response, the German government did not want to provide any details on the GIZ project to “support border management” in the Mediterranean. The programme in Tunisia aims to “improve the quality of coastguard training” and costs around €3.5 million is the only reply.
Published in German in „nd“.