The UN migration agency has been accused of forcing Bangladeshi migrants, including children, in Tunisia to return home following weeks at sea, the Daily Star reported.
The Forum Tunisien pour les Droits Economiques et Sociaux (FTDES) NGO, filed a complaint to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Tunisia this month in this regard.
The group of 64 Bangladeshis said they felt pressed by the IOM to sign a voluntary return paper, or risk arrest, according to a report by British daily The Guardian published on August 26.
The migrants were among a group of 75 — about half of whom were unaccompanied children — rescued by vessel Maridive 601 in May, the same source said.
They started their journey from conflict-ridden Libya aiming to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe.
After 19 days at sea, they were allowed to disembark in Zarzis, Tunisia, and were taken to a Red Crescent reception centre in Tunis, the report said.
Over the following days, dozens of people were deported to Bangladesh through the voluntary return and reintegration programme.
The migrants also said diplomats from the Bangladeshi embassy in Libya, who had visited Tunisia to arrange repatriation, had warned them that if they did not sign the voluntary return document, they would become victims of organ trafficking, The Guardian report said.
“Based on the testimonies we collected, FTDES files this complaint to the IOM to raise severe concerns about the treatment of migrants by IOM Tunisia,” read the complaint.
“The testimonies of the migrants were consistent and all allude to forms of malpractice on the part of IOM.”
“According to the migrants, IOM staff members used intense psychological pressure during the interviews to force them to accept their ‘voluntary’ return to Bangladesh,” said FTDES.
Nine of the migrants, interviewed by the Guardian, said their lives would be at risk if they returned to Bangladesh. Many had accumulated debts to reach Libya and if they were to return they feared they would be threatened and tortured.
But they felt the IOM had put all of the Bangladeshi migrants under immense psychological pressure to return to Bangladesh while they were still on the boat, and after they’d docked.
“The IOM gave us a sheet,” one of the migrants told the Guardian. “The documents said nobody would force us to leave. They told us the police here in Tunisia will arrest us and they don’t know when we’ll be released. The government in Bangladesh is not helping and neither are the Tunisians. Please, we want to stay.”
The IOM, however, has denied any pressure was applied to the migrants to return to Bangladesh, and said that all documentation was explained to them in a language they understood, the Guardian report says.
They said migrants were informed of all options available to them regarding asylum and remaining in Tunisia.
IOM Tunisia spokesperson, Leonard Doyle, said those who opted to return received counselling and had the contents of documents explained to them in a language they understood.
He said, “The migrants who expressed a wish to stay do not have passports. Passports cannot be obtained in Tunisia. Therefore, IOM staff detailed the risk of staying in an irregular situation. It is fundamental for IOM that migrants take informed and free decisions.”
A spokesman from the Bangladeshi embassy in Tripoli, which is responsible for Tunisia’s affairs, said he couldn’t comment on the specific incident, but was aware of the allegations against embassy officials, and was “taking the accusations very seriously”.
He said the embassy was “willing to collaborate with the foreign ministry in Dhaka in case they decide to launch an investigation”. The embassy does not have the authority to launch its own investigation.
“If it did happen, then the ministry of foreign affairs in Dhaka could go on with the charge.
FTDES has confirmed that four of the Bangladeshis who refused to sign the voluntary return agreement and decided to remain in Tunisia were eventually granted asylum seeker status by the UNHCR last week.
TunisianMonitorOnline (Source: the Daily Star)