With Europe’s support, North African nations push migrants to the desert

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“There is Algeria, follow the light,” the Tunisian official barked at the Black migrants. “If you’re seen here, you’ll be shot.”

François, a 38-year-old Cameroonian, obeyed, jumping off the bed of a pickup truck near the desolate Algerian frontier. A day earlier, the rickety boat attempting to carry him and other hopeful sub-Saharans to Europe — including his wife and 6-year-old stepson — had been interdicted by the Tunisian coast guard in the cobalt blue waters off the coast. Still wet and cold, the group of 30 migrants, including two pregnant women, now walked toward their punishment: the desert.

Their ordeal — an odyssey of at least 345 miles from sea to sand, recounted by François and verified by matching GPS tracking on his phone with images and videos he captured during nine days of wandering — illustrates one example of the draconian practices being deployed in at least three North African nations to dissuade sub-Saharan migrants from risky crossings to Europe.

The clandestine operations mainly targeting Black migrants had a silent partner: Europe.

A year-long joint investigation by The Washington Post, Lighthouse Reports and a consortium of international media outlets shows how the European Union and individual European nations are supporting and financing aggressive operations by governments in North Africa to detain tens of thousands of migrants each year and dump them in remote areas, often barren deserts.

  • European funds have been used to train personnel and buy equipment for units implicated in desert dumps and human rights abuses, records and interviews show. Migrants have been pushed back into the most inhospitable parts of North Africa, exposing them to abandonment with no food or water, kidnapping, extortion, sale as human chattel, torture, sexual violence and, in the worst instances, death.
  • Spanish security forces in Mauritania photographed and reviewed lists of migrants before they were driven to Mali against their will and left to wander for days in an area where violent Islamist groups operate, according to testimony and documents.
  • In Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia, vehicles of the same make and model as those provided by European countries to local security forces rounded up Black migrants from streets or transported them from detention centers to remote regions, according to filmed footage, verified images, migrant testimony and interviews with officials.
  • European officials held internal discussions on some of the abusive practices since at least 2019, and were flagged to allegations in reports by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Frontex, the E.U. border agency.

The E.U. provided more than 400 million euros to Tunisia, Morocco and Mauritania between 2015 and 2021 under its largest migration fund, the E.U. Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, an initiative to foster local economic growth and stem migration. In addition, the E.U. has funded dozens of other projects that are difficult to quantify and track due to a lack of transparency in the E.U.’s funding system.

To confront a surge of irregular migration last year, Europe moved to deepen its partnerships in North Africa, offering an extra 105 million euros to Tunisia last year and signing a deal in February with Mauritania to provide an additional 210 million euros.

The investigation — focused on Tunisia, Morocco and Mauritania, three countries with some of the deepest E.U. partnerships — amounts to the most comprehensive attempt yet to document European knowledge of and involvement with anti-migrant operations in North Africa. It is based on firsthand observations by journalists, analysis of visual evidence, geospatial mapping, internal E.U. documents, and interviews with 50 migrants who were victims of dumps, as well as European and North African officials, and other people familiar with the operations. Like François, many of the migrants agreed to speak on the condition that only their first names be used, out of fear of retribution.

Map of northern Africa, highlighting Tunisia, Morocco and Mauritania

In Tunisia, visual evidence and testimony were used to verify 11 dumps — of as many as 90 migrants each — in the desert near the borders with Libya and Algeria, one as recent as this month, as well as one instance in which migrants were handed over at the Libyan border and detained. At least 29 people were reported to have died, with dozens missing after being dumped or expelled from Tunisia on the Libyan border, according to the United Nations Support Mission in Libya and humanitarian organizations.

Migrants take shelter in the shade after being dumped by Tunisian authorities in a remote region near the border with Algeria in September. (François)

The E.U., under its own laws as well as international treaties, is obliged to ensure that its funds are spent in ways that respect fundamental human rights. But the European Commission, the bloc’s executive branch, has conceded that human rights assessments are not conducted when funding migrant management projects abroad. Agencies that receive E.U. funds are expected to monitor implementation in partnership with external consultants. But accountability for how equipment and funding are used is often opaque, and senior European officials privately concede that it is “impossible” to regulate all uses.

In comments to European lawmakers in January, Ylva Johansson, the E.U. minister in charge of migration, acknowledged reports of desert dumps in at least one country — Tunisia — and conceded that “I can’t say that this practice has stopped.” But she categorically denied that the bloc was “sponsoring” the mistreatment or deportation of migrants through financial support.

A spokesperson for the European Commission said in a statement that migrant management aid to North African countries is designed to combat human trafficking and “defend the rights” of migrants. The bloc, the statement said, seeks to monitor programs through “spot verification missions,” “monitoring exercises” and external evaluations.

Senior officials in Tunisia, Morocco and Mauritania denied racial profiling and the dumping of migrants in remote areas. They insisted that migrant rights were being respected, though officials in Tunisia and Mauritania have said that some migrants have been returned or deported over their arid borders.

“The fact is European states do not want to be the ones to have dirty hands. They do not want to be considered responsible for the violation of human rights,” said Marie-Laure Basilien-Gainche, a human rights and legal expert at France’s Jean Moulin Lyon 3 university. “So they are subcontracting these violations to third states. But I think, really, according to international law, they are responsible.”

Critics note that the operations are also being carried out against the backdrop of a growing backlash across Europe against irregular migration, an issue that is dominating political debates ahead of key June elections for the European Parliament in which the far right is poised to make record gains.

Analysts and former officials say the objective of the operations in North Africa is clear: deterrence.

“You have to make life difficult for” migrants, said a contractor who worked on projects financed by the E.U. Emergency Trust Fund for Africa. The person spoke on the condition that his name be withheld so as not to jeopardize future contracts. “Complicate their lives. So, if a migrant from Guinea is in [Morocco], and you take him to the Sahara two times, the third time he … asks for a voluntary return home.”

The investigation established through witness testimony, videos taken by reporters and footage verified by The Post that anti-migrant operations often involve raids or random street roundups based on racial profiling — the use of which has been acknowledged in E.U. documents. One internal report on Morocco from Frontex, obtained through a freedom of information request, noted “allegations of racial profiling and excessive use of force by the police and other law enforcement officials against migrants, asylum-seekers, and refugees, as well as arbitrary arrests, detentions, and forced relocation from the north to the south, which disproportionately affected migrants from sub-Saharan countries.”

In the Moroccan capital of Rabat, journalists observed three instances over three days in which auxiliary forces that receive E.U. funding rounded up Black migrants in vans. Dozens of videos of similar operations by the same forces were verified as having taken place in Fes, Tangier and Tan-Tan, as well as Laayoune in Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara.

“When they see a Black guy, they come,” said Lamine, a 25-year-old from Guinea who, since early 2023, said he has been repeatedly detained and beaten in Rabat, then dumped in the interior by Moroccan forces despite having refugee papers from UNHCR.

In a statement, Morocco’s Interior Ministry described allegations of racial profiling in migrant removals as “baseless” and said migrants were only relocated to protect them from “trafficking networks” and for “increased protection.” It said European “technical support” for migrant management was “minimal compared to the efforts and costs incurred by our country.”

Wandering in the desert

The Sahara has become an increasingly frequent and perilous punishment for migrants daring to cross the sea to Europe.

François, the 38-year-old from Cameroon, had set off four times in overcrowded boats from the Tunisian coast in the hopes of reaching Europe. All four times, he was picked up at sea and returned to land.

Three times, his detention by authorities led to dumps with other migrants at the desolate Algerian border, he said in interviews describing his experiences. His longest ordeal was in September.

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