Tunisia: Release immigration detainees amid COVID-19 pandemic

The Tunisian authorities must urgently release immigration detainees held in appalling conditions in the Ouardia Reception and Orientation Center in Tunis and ensure they have access to essential services, including adequate accommodation and healthcare, Amnesty International said today.

As part of their overall plan to combat COVID-19, the Tunisian authorities should be seeking to reduce the population of its detention centers and as an immediate step, release the Ouardia immigration detainees and ensure they can access lifesaving healthcare.
Amna Guellali

Detained migrants told Amnesty International of dire conditions inside the Ouardia Center, including overcrowding, with approximately 50 detainees sharing five rooms, two bathrooms and a common eating area. Amnesty International has reviewed photos and videos that showed inmates sleeping on mattresses close to each other in crowded cells.

“As part of their overall plan to combat COVID-19, the Tunisian authorities should be seeking to reduce the population of its detention centers and as an immediate step, release the Ouardia immigration detainees and ensure they can access lifesaving healthcare. Detention solely for immigration purposes should only be allowed in the most exceptional of circumstances and simply cannot be justified in the middle of a global pandemic such as Covid-19,” said Amna Guellali, Deputy Director for North Africa at Amnesty International. 

“While the Tunisian authorities appear to have made some attempts to address the risk of COVID-19 for the immigration detainees, these are far from adequate. The conditions in Ouardia make it impossible to implement preventative measures to avoid the spread of the disease inside the detention center, thus posing a grave risk to the health of all those who live or work there, as well as the wider community.”   

Amnesty International interviewed six of those currently detained in the Ouardia Center, which is run by the Ministry of Interior as a place of detention for foreign nationals. The center is currently hosting dozens of people, including six women and at least one child. Many of them were not aware of the legal basis for their detention while some others had been charged with offences, released from prison and held in the Center awaiting deportation. The group includes nationals from the Ivory Coast, Senegal, Cameroun and Morocco many appear to be migrants, as well as at least one person who had lodged an asylum claim. 

On 15 April, a governmental delegation visited the center. According to two detainees Amnesty International spoke to following the visit, the prison authorities subsequently gave each detainee one paper mask and a bottle of antibacterial gel.

The conditions in Ouardia make it impossible to implement preventative measures to avoid the spread of the disease inside the detention center, thus posing a grave risk to the health of all those who live or work there, as well as the wider community
Amna Guellali

The detainees said that they fear for their health after the authorities brought in new detainees in March and April, some directly from the airport, without isolating or testing them to check if they had contracted the virus. Several detainees are currently conducting a hunger strike, demanding to be released over fears that overcrowding and unhygienic conditions put them at increased risk of contracting COVID-19. Others are demanding to be returned to their home countries.

Four of the six detainees interviewed by Amnesty International told the organization that they do not understand the reason for their detention as they have not been informed of any administrative detention order against them, and they have not been charged with any offence. Although these assertions could not be verified, they raise serious concerns that some people in Ouardia Center are being detained arbitrarily, which is unlawful under international human rights treaties binding on Tunisia. These two interviewees said that they had been living in Tunisia for many years and they are demanding to go back to their homes where they can safely self-isolate.

Rajabu Kilamun, a man from the Democratic Republic of Congo who said he has been living in Tunisia for seven years and founded an association, Migrants sans Frontières, to help migrants in Tunisia. He told Amnesty International that he was apprehended on 14 February and brought to the Ouardia Center on grounds of his irregular residency in Tunisia. Rajabu explained to Amnesty International that the only reason for his apprehension and detention is failing to obtain a residency in Tunisia which he states that he has applied for many times and never received.

“I don’t understand why now, after seven years of living in Tunisia, I have to be detained here like a criminal and in the middle of a health emergency crisis,” said Rajabu Kilamun.

Fiona, one of the women detainees whom Amnesty International spoke to over the phone, said that a few women are in ill health and appear to have rashes. When they asked to see a doctor, Fiona said they were told to wait for the doctor who visits the center once every two weeks. She told Amnesty International:

“I have been here for one month now and I can tell you that the situation is as bad as when I first arrived. They don't even give us enough soap to wash our hands, if you don't have money to buy your own soap, you never have enough of it. I am very worried about my health as I see that other women who have been here longer are getting sick and starting to get rashes from the dirty covers they provide."

If there are people who genuinely want to go back to their countries of origin, the Tunisian authorities should work with the relevant governments to guarantee their safe, dignified and voluntary return, while of course fully respecting the principle of non-refoulement
Amna Guellali

A detainee estimated that at least 20 of the detainees held in Ouardia had already been charged with crimes and were awaiting deportation to their countries of origin. Another explained to Amnesty International that he was brought to Ouardia Center in late March after finishing a pre-trial detention period in prison. He said he is being detained until he can be removed to his country of origin. He told Amnesty International that most of the detainees are running out of money, which means that they can no longer afford to purchase supplies or cleaning products.

“If there are people who genuinely want to go back to their countries of origin, the Tunisian authorities should work with the relevant governments to guarantee their safe, dignified and voluntary return, while of course fully respecting the principle of non-refoulement,” said Amna Guellali.