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In Saied's Tunisia, African migrants face a wave of hatred

In Saied's Tunisia, African migrants face a wave of hatred
6 min read
27 February, 2023
In-depth: The Tunisian president's racist remarks about African migrants, which echo a far-right demographic conspiracy theory, have sparked panic within the community and unleashed a wave of arrests, social violence, and hate speech.

In an address to Tunisia’s National Security Council last Tuesday, President Kais Saied demanded urgent action to crack down on migration from sub-Saharan Africa, which he said was part of an organised scheme intended to alter the country’s demographic makeup.

"The undeclared goal of the successive waves of illegal immigration is to consider Tunisia a purely African country that has no affiliation to the Arab and Islamic nations," he said, pointing to a “criminal plan since the beginning of the century to change the demographic structure of Tunisia”.

The president used far-right ‘great replacement’ rhetoric to accuse unnamed parties of enabling the settlement of irregular African immigrants in Tunisia, linking them to violence and criminality.

He reiterated the same rhetoric in a meeting with Interior Minister Taoufik Cherfeddine on Thursday, denying his comments were racist.

The African Union’s Commission chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat strongly condemned Saied’s “shocking statement”, calling on the AU’s member states to "refrain from racialised hate speech”.

The speech by the presidency triggered outrage among activists and minority groups in the north African country, who promptly denounced it as "racist" and "fascist”.

Saied’s controversial comments come amid a campaign of repression against critics and political opponents, often branded by the head of state as “traitors” and “enemies of the state”. In an already tense social climate, Tunisians are growing frustrated over surging inflation, shortages of essential goods, and a deepening economic crisis.

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The remarks follow a widespread racist hate campaign and discriminatory propaganda on social media initiated by various groups, who have promoted taking further action on the ground. In recent weeks, the Tunisian Nationalist Party has called for the deportation of sub-Saharan African migrants.

In addition, mass arrests of migrants have been reported. Over 20 local rights organisations led by the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES) on 16 February denounced the arrest of 300 migrants in a number of cities in a single week following ID checks. Others were detained while in court to support their relatives.

More migrants were rounded up last week as part of a supposed national security campaign to verify the papers of African workers, while others suspected of having an irregular immigration status were detained.

A newly formed Tunisian Anti-Fascist Front made up of numerous independent activists and members of civil society groups held a march in central Tunis on Saturday under the banner of “Abolish Fascism, Tunisia is an African Land” in reaction to the new wave of racism.

People shout slogans during a protest against Tunisian President Kais Saied on 25 February 2023 after his statement against African migrants. [Photo by Yassine Mahjoub/NurPhoto via Getty Images]

Hundreds of protesters marched from the Tunisian journalist union SNJT’s headquarters toward Habib Bourguiba Avenue, chanting slogans such as ‘Down with racism. Tunisia is an African country’, ‘The people want human justice’, and raising banners in solidarity with migrants. People also criticised French colonialism as the protest reached the French embassy compound.

“We accuse the presidency of being a servant of the EU and of its imperialist, racist migration policies,” Henda Chennaoui, a leading member of the Anti-Fascist Front, told The New Arab. “We won’t leave Tunisia in the hands of the fascists. We are also African, and not just Arab and Muslim as they want us to believe,” she added.

The front called on Tunisian authorities to stop all violence, harassment, and detention measures against African migrants, whether documented or not.

“Racism has always been around, but the fact that it becomes part of official decisions is serious,” Rawdha Seibi, a member of the Tunisian Association for the Support of Minorities (ATSM), told TNA. “We will step up our fight against racial discrimination to make sure this problem doesn’t go unnoticed,” she stressed.

Dhia Jatou, a black Tunisian high-school student participating in the demonstration, expressed unease about Saied’s comments and the recent surge in anti-black discourse. Speaking to The New Arab, the young man said he is often questioned in the street and racially profiled. “People would stop me and ask if I’m Tunisian or African, if I’m Muslim or not”.

The president’s statement has exacerbated escalating incitement against immigrants in the country, specifically from sub-Saharan African countries, many of whom are already in vulnerable situations, with the risk of further exposing them to attacks from Tunisians and indiscriminate arrests by authorities.

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There have been posts circulating on social media in recent days with testimonies on the ground of migrants being forcibly evicted from their homes, children being taken from nursery schools and arrested with their parents, and extensive raids.

Incidents of mob violence have also been reported, with accounts of crowds surrounding the homes of migrants and chasing them out. African ‘irregular’ migrants, meanwhile, are being banned from public transportation, with many migrants staying in their homes for fear of being detained or abused.

Following intimidation, aggression, and arbitrary arrests, the Association of African Students and Interns in Tunisia (AESAT) released a statement on Wednesday warning students not to go out except for emergencies and to always have their residency cards with them at all times.

“When the presidential speech came out, we became extremely worried as we realised that the authorities are following orders given by the highest authority,” Ali, a member of AESAT who did not give his family name for safety concerns, told The New Arab, alluding to the arrest campaign targeting African migrants and xenophobic and racist sentiments propagated online.

People shout slogans during a protest against Tunisian President Kais Saied on 25 February 2023 after his statement against African migrants. [Photo by Yassine Mahjoub/NurPhoto via Getty Images]

Ali spoke of the mass arrests of African immigrants in several areas of Tunis, including the Ariana district - known to host a large migrant community – and across northern and central neighbourhoods, condemning the “arbitrary” and “abusive” practices by police officers used against students with or without papers which included random identity checks and detention for up to three days.

In one case, a student from Mauritania spent six days in jail, where he only received food for three days, was stripped naked, and had his head shaved, according to AESAT.

The association said they had started receiving messages from students being forced out by landlords, or panicked phone calls from others who reported harassment and aggression by young Tunisians such as fires set outside their buildings and attempts to break in. Days ago, Ali himself was harassed by a man who was shouting racist insults outside his window.

In the current climate of fear, many Africans have already made up their minds to leave the country.

Complex bureaucratic procedures make it difficult and costly to get a residency permit in Tunisia, leaving many without regular immigration status.

“Those students who have the financial means are preparing to depart, opting for another destination to continue their studies,” the AESAT’s representative explained. “The others stay waiting to finish their academic year before they can enrol in another country”.

More than 21,000 nationals from African countries live in Tunisia, according to the Tunisian National Institute of Statistics, less than one percent of the country’s population.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis.

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec