In Sfax, Tunisia's anti-migrant racism reaches a boiling point
"We are treated like animals. They took us from our homes to put us on buses. Now, some of us are injured, a woman is pregnant, and children are starving. All I want is water. We’ve been drinking seawater," said Mustafa, a Sudanese refugee who fled to Tunisia a few months ago when political violence erupted in his country.
Mustafa is now one of hundreds of people stranded at the Libyan border, camping on deserted land in the unbearable heat of the Tunisian summer.
Since last week, Tunisian authorities have been deporting hundreds of migrants from the coastal city of Sfax, a popular departure point for migrants hoping to reach Europe, to the Algerian and Libyan borders.
Last Monday, tensions skyrocketed in Sfax after a Tunisian man was stabbed to death during an altercation with a group of migrants. This sparked a wave of violent clashes between locals and migrants that caused many injuries.
"In the last few months, Black migrants have been routinely blamed for Tunisia's economic fragility"
"People from Sfax started physically abusing us just because we are black. We thought the authorities were coming to protect us but they were beating us too," Mustafa told The New Arab.
The Tunisian government has never confirmed that it was deporting migrants to Tunisia’s borders. On 9 July, President Kais Saied issued a statement saying that migrants in Tunisia have been treated with humanity and that media reports and social media images were fake news.
But the videos and testimonies emerging from Sfax tell a very different story. "Black migrants were beaten up by security forces. At least 600 hundred people were deported," confirmed Monia Ben Hamadi, political consultant and journalist, to The New Arab.
Those who managed to escape deportation remain in a precarious situation. "Black people are leaving the city to go to nearby villages, where they feel more safe. Those who stayed in Sfax are hiding. Some of them were evicted from their homes. Sometimes they ask for some water from neighbours," Ben Hamadi told TNA.
The NGO Human Rights Watch urged Tunisia to halt expulsion of immigrants to the border with Libya while also adding that the government should investigate and hold to account security forces implicated in abuses.
Among locals in Sfax, some are satisfied with the situation. "They [migrants] are causing the crisis. The shortages, it's because of them. We can't even find bread in Sfax anymore," said Nizar, a shop owner living in the suburbs of Sfax, where the violence against migrants started.
In the last few months, Black migrants have been routinely blamed for Tunisia's economic fragility. The Tunisian Nationalist Party has been spreading fake news in a violent campaign against immigration which claims that "Tunisia has been colonised by sub-Saharan Africans".
Among other things, the party has claimed that over 700,000 Black migrants are living in Tunisia when the most recent report by the Tunisian Observatory for Migration found this number to be just 21,000.
According to economist Elyes Jouini, the economic crisis facing the country has little to do with migrants.
"The number of migrants in Tunisia is very low, even compared to tourists who never caused any form of shortages," the professor of economics at the University of Paris Dauphine told The New Arab, adding that one of the reasons migrants are coming to Tunisia is because there is an industry of migration.
Nonetheless, Jouini believes that the treatment of migrants and Black people is linked to the economic situation. The EU recently agreed to provide Tunisia with more than $1 billion, some of which is to be used to take harsher measures to prevent migrants from entering Europe.
"We can't deal with the problem by terrorising people. We need better legislation. Unfortunately, a hungry stomach has no ear. This is where the economic situation intersects with the migration situation," he explained.
"The recent tensions between Sfaxians and sub-Saharan African migrants date back to February, when President Saied publicly accused migrants of being part of a plot to alter Tunisian demographics"
So far, the Tunisian government has not implemented a functional migration policy, leaving many immigrants who are working and studying in the country struggling to get their residency cards, hindering integration.
The recent tensions between Sfaxians and sub-Saharan African migrants date back to February, when President Saied publicly accused migrants of being part of a plot to alter Tunisian demographics.
The statement led to acts of racial violence all around the country, while Tunisia's image has been shattered in Africa after Saied's comments. The few Tunisian products exported around the continent are facing boycotts.
Within Tunisia, there is some resistance against the latest wave of xenophobia. Far-left movements, such as the Workers Party, denounced the "unprecedented growth of racism which marked the rise of physical abuse and insult campaigns", claiming that the February statement of President Kais Saied is directly responsible for the situation.
The party led by Hamma Hammami, a historical figure of the Tunisian struggle for democracy, emphasised that the deportation campaign against Black migrants is contrary to national and international laws and called on the Tunisian people "to not engage in racist campaigns against our brothers".
"Tunisia will be the one paying for Kais Saied's policy," said Zied Ghanney, one of the founders of the centre-left party Tayar, in a conversation with The New Arab. His party has been targeted regularly by Kais Saied, with former leader Ghazi Chaouachi in prison since March.
For Ghanney, the Sfax crisis and the rise of racism are deeply linked to the intensification of Saied's authoritarian regime. The February speech was acclaimed by all far-right movements in Europe, from France's Eric Zemmour to Italy's Giorgia Meloni.
"Officials and the political elite need to condemn racism. The solution can only come from democracy, transparency and communication," Ghanney said.
"If what we are seeing on social media is confirmed, it's truly a crime against humanity," he added.
This term is yet to be used by any international organisations to describe the situation, but some experts believe that it's the best way to define what's happening to Black people in Tunisia and to raise awareness on the international stage.
"I have been cautious to use the term genocide but Kais Saied has put in place state violence, and legitimised violence against migrants in order to erase them completely. You look at the United Nations definition of genocide and it falls completely into it," explained North Carolina - Chapel Hill scholar Shreya Parikh to The New Arab.
According to Parikh, Saied is trying to remove anything African from Tunisia. In his February statement, Kais Saied explained that migrants were part of a plot to erase the Arab and Muslim identity of Tunisia.
While Parikh asserts that racism was always present in Tunisian politics and society, she explained that "Kais Saied made all that official".
Today, even on the international stage, President Saied has formed tight relationships with far-right leaders such as ultranationalist Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni, who has been a vocal supporter of the Tunisian regime, seeing it as a crucial partner in policing Europe's external borders.
For Mustafa, the Sudanese refugee who is spending his sixth night at the Libyan border, what is happening is unimaginable.
"My people suffer from racism in Europe, alongside Tunisians, Algerians, etc… We never imagined a Muslim country could do this to Black people."
Amine Snoussi is a political analyst and independent journalist based in Tunis.
Follow him on Twitter: @amin_snoussi