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Foreign fighters: Urgent measures needed to stop flow from Tunisia – UN expert group warns

Fighters flowing from Tunisia

10 July 2015

TUNIS / GENEVA (10 July 2015) – The United Nations Working Group on the use of mercenaries today warned that complex recruiting and travel networks have taken thousands of Tunisian men, women and even entire families to join the fighting in Syria and Iraq. Most fighters have reportedly joined takfiri or other extremist groups abroad.

“The number of Tunisian foreign fighters is one of the highest among those travelling to join conflicts abroad such as in Syria and Iraq,” said human rights expert Elżbieta Karska, who currently heads the expert group, after an official visit* to Tunisia to gather information on the activities of foreign fighters in the country. 

During their mission, the expert received information that there are some 4,000 Tunisians in Syria, 1,000 – 1,500 in Libya, 200 in Iraq, 60 in Mali, and 50 in Yemen. Some 625 who have returned from Iraq are being prosecuted.

“Sophisticated travel networks operate to take recruits across the porous borders, and sometimes through areas where trafficking in people and illicit goods may not be effectively controlled,” Ms. Karska noted. “Testimony has documented that the routes taken entail travel through Libya, then Turkey and its border at Antakya, and then Syria.”

The expert also drew special attention to the possible links between the phenomena of mercenarism and foreign fighters.

“It was reported to us that recruiters in these networks are well paid – one figure given is that of US$3,000 to US$10,000 per new recruit, depending on the person’s qualifications,” Ms. Karska revealed. “The role of money thus apparently varies according to the stage of recruitment and foreign fighter activity. This is of particular relevance to the work of the Working Group on the use of mercenaries.”

“We were told repeatedly that many foreign fighters undertake training in Libya before going to Syria, and that the instability in Libya has fuelled a lot of the support activities for the growth, training, and travel for foreign fighters,” she said. “Resolution of the conflict and political impasse in that country would thus benefit Tunisia’s counter-terrorism efforts considerably.”

Among the motivational factors which account for the high number of Tunisian foreign fighters, the expert pointed to religious and political ideologies, financial gains, economic and social conditions, sense of purpose, and sense of belonging.

The majority of Tunisians travelling to join extremist groups abroad seem to be young people, usually 18-35 years old. Some of these young persons come from poor socio-economic yet there are also some who are from middle class and wealthier parts of society. “We have also been informed of professionals who offer their skills to extremist groups and that some seem to have been mistakenly drawn to a life portrayed as brave and exciting,” the group’s Chair-Rapporteur said.

“Reportedly, women, present in smaller numbers, may have also joined for similar reasons, as well as for humanitarian or private reasons such as joining their husbands and partners,” she noted. The Working Group was also informed of the growing issue of entire families travelling to conflict zones.

“Any one or a combination of these may be relevant, thus making for significantly diverse profiles of foreign fighters,” the expert said, urging the Tunisian Government to adopt a national strategic plan to address the issue in an all-inclusive, multifaceted and strategic way.

“A national strategic plan should respond to the diverse profiles and recruitment methods, have immediate, medium and long-term impact, balance punitive against social measures, and ensure the comprehensive adoption of international human rights standards in all its elements,” she stated.

The Working Group welcomed the Tunisian authorities’ efforts to consider alternatives to prosecution for returnee fighters, including social, cultural and religious approaches. In that regard, the experts recommended a balance of punitive and social measures by the Government, in order to address immediate and deeper root and structural causes of the phenomenon of foreign fighters.

During the eight-day visit, the delegation held meetings in Tunis and Monastir, and visited the prison of Mornaguia. They also met with various representatives from the executive, legislative and judicial branches, academics and representatives of civil society organizations including families of persons who have travelled to join conflicts abroad. Meetings were also held with representatives from UN agencies and other international partners.

The expert group will present their first report on the issue of foreign fighters to the UN General Assembly later this year, which will include facts gathered during their visit to Tunisia and other countries, and the information shared by UN Member States and other actors.

The Working Group will present a comprehensive report on its visit to Tunisia to the Human Rights Council in 2016.

(*) Check the experts’ full end-of-mission statement:

The Working Group on the use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the exercise of the rights of peoples to self-determination was established in July 2005 by the then Commission on Human Rights. Its mandate was further extended by the Human Rights Council in 2008.

The Working Group is comprised of five independent expert members from various regions of the world. The Chair-Rapporteur is Elżbieta Karska (Poland).  Other members are Patricia Arias (Chile), Anton Katz (South Africa), Gabor Rona (United States of America) and Saeed Mokbil (Yemen). Learn more, log on to:

The Working Groups are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

UN Human Rights, Country Page – Tunisia:

For more information and media requests, please contact:
During the mission: Ms. Anis Mahfoudh (+216 2173 6189 / [email protected])
Before and after the mission: Jolene Tautakitaki (+41 22 917 9363 / [email protected]) and Ms. Alisa Clarke (+41 22 917 9633 / [email protected]) or write to [email protected]

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / [email protected])  

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