How Tunisia's Kais Saied uses irregular migrants for political gain
In the three years of Kais Saied’s one-man rule, Tunisia has become the new El Dorado for African migrants.
“The police officer turned his head away and pretended he didn't see us," a Sierra Leonean migrant in Tataouine told The New Arab.
“We were stopped for about two hours at the Ras Jedir police and customs station, busy with Tunisian and Libyan travellers on both sides. Nobody talked to us," a Nigerian family told us.
“When the station was almost empty, they just said ‘you can go now. Nobody asked for our credentials or anything."
"Many in Tunisia today fear Saied using migrants as “agents”, or “militias”, for his populist, ultra-conservative regime"
It seems that security officials in Tunis, Tataouine and Medenine have been deprived of any professional autonomy.
“We see many violations (in relation to the arrival and registration of migrants) every day but we are obliged to obey,” a Tunisian security official told The New Arab, asking to remain anonymous.
“If we object or react on social media, sanctions are immediate and severe."
Since Kais Saied's assumption of the Tunisian presidency in 2019, the number of African migrants who have arrived in Tunisia without being stopped or registered has dramatically increased.
“Officially, 10,000 irregular migrants have crossed the borders from Libya to Tunisia during the first half of 2022”, M.E., a former UNHCR employee in Medenine revealed. In reality, the numbers are much bigger.
Official figures vary considerably, but it is believed foreign migrants in Tunisia far exceed a million.
In the current hard economic and social situation, these migrants will only be an additional burden on Tunisian infrastructure.
Since the start of his tenure, Saied has put the army and the police at the behest of his political project. After his referendum on a new constitution, Saied sacked and replaced nine high-ranking police officers. Furthermore, Saied's Interior Minister Taoufik Charfeddine has been appointing his own friends to key positions in the police and the National Guard.
An African terrorist in Tunis
The general assumption among activists, politicians and foreign diplomats in Tunisia is that more and more African migrants are in Tunisia to stay, not to move to Europe.
It seems that Saied needs these migrants for something.
Many in Tunisia today fear Saied using migrants as “agents”, or “militias”, for his populist, ultra-conservative regime. In fact, Tunisians have witnessed many Africans taking part in pro-Saied rallies in the past months.
Last June, Tunisia’s Interior Ministry unveiled that there was a foiled plan to assassinate president Kais Saied. A person, quoted by the ministry as a “lone wolf” was arrested after he stabbed a policeman guarding a Jewish synagogue in Lafayette, downtown Tunis.
The New Arab's sources, citing eyewitnesses, confirmed that this person was of Sub-Saharan African origins. The whole story seemed fabricated, despite huge propaganda.
Officially, Tunisia has always formally rejected calls to host migrants and refugees on a permanent basis. But this seems to be changing under Saied’s rule.
Whole areas have been “occupied” by African and other migrants, who have supposedly invaded the country’s job market.
Neighbourhoods like Soukra, Borj Louzir and Dar Fadhal in Tunis, Bahri, Drabek and Haffara in Sfax, and some areas in down-town Medenine and south of Ben Guerdane have turned into deprived areas.
Migrants in these overpopulated, mostly working-class neighbourhoods “now have a sort of autonomous, independent communities. They have their own laws,” Zarzis-based activist Jihad A. told The New Arab, adding “migrants have strained ties with local communities. Clashes, sometimes violent, have often taken place in the past year."
In fact, violent clashes, where sticks and knives were used, last took place in Haffara, Sfax, in September 2021.
In July 2021, two groups of African migrants, one from Bahri and another from Drabek violently clashed. Forty people from both sides were arrested by the police.
“These same neighbourhoods are also hot spots for irregular migration, both as meeting places and as departure points”, explains Jihad.
All this is taking place in broad daylight as the police, the media and the public keep silent.
Since his 2021 coup, Kais Saied has cracked down on outspoken journalists, bloggers and any other dissident voices.
“This new phenomenon also raises questions about the networks behind a lucrative business”, notes H.K., a human rights and migration activist.
“We wonder how foreign migrants send money to their families, in Africa and elsewhere”, she adds. “If they chose to live and work here, they are certainly finding ways to do it, and these ways can only be illegal”.
In Tunisia, individuals are strictly banned from sending currency abroad.
Young Tunisians pushed out of their country
Alongside the flooding of Tunisia with migrants, Saied’s strategy also includes emptying the country from its youth.
“Unemployed, uneducated, and rebellious Tunisian youth have constituted a big challenge to the regime, since the Ben Ali era”, believes T.J., a blogger and civil society activist.
“To get rid of these young people, mainly in the poor southern towns of the country, Saied’s authorities are shutting their eyes to the massive daily migration journeys from the south-eastern coasts of Zarzis, Jerba and Sfax to Italy”, T.J. reveals.
Today, more Tunisians sail to Europe from Tunisia than Africans.
On August 1st, Italy’s Interior ministry revealed that the biggest numbers of irregular migrants who arrived in Italy from January to July 2022 are Tunisians, which is more than Bangladeshis, Sub-Saharan Africans, Iranians and others.
"Unemployed, uneducated, and rebellious Tunisian youth have constituted a big challenge to the regime since the Ben Ali era"
The chaotic situation in Tunisia provides one reason for their flight but it's not the only one.
While investigating this report, we discovered that in Tataouine, there’s a flourishing network of migration for Tunisians to western Europe, via Turkey and Serbia.
In June alone, 1700 persons, men and women, chose this way to go to Europe legally.
These individuals and families fly regularly to Istanbul. There, a Tunisian official sells them the official security document, which states that a person is ‘clean’, and not prosecuted in any legal cases in Tunisia. That document, which is never delivered in Tunisia because it is supposed to contain “classified” information, is strictly required by Serbia to allow Tunisians in.
The price of the journey from Tataouine to Serbia is 20,000 Tunisian Dinars, about 6,500 US Dollars. Still, thousands chose this way to migrate to Europe.
“Tunisians trade their passports for a visa to Serbia, this is simply shocking”, said T.J. “If it happened during Ennahdha rule, it would have had a shock wave in Tunisia and elsewhere”.
Medenine and Tataouine, two key regions for fuel smuggling and human trafficking, have remained without senior officials for months after President Saied sacked their old governors.
He recently appointed new ones, but they are deprived of the power to take major decisions. "The current officials will be sacked again soon as Saied prepares a new reshuffle of regional officials”, notes Ahmed Lamari, a former MP from Medenine.
Saied has also declared war on the country’s mayors. “Mayors can play a major role in monitoring irregular migration and in the hosting of migrants”, explains Boubaker Souid, Mayor of Tataouine. “But they are now left without any prerogative and who knows how Saied’s regime will get rid of them”.
“It seems that one of the tactics of the Tunisian authorities is to empty the country of young people, who have always been the main source of contest and revolt”, says M.B., a civil society activist from Medenine.
Besides democratically-elected institutions, Saied has constantly attacked civil-society organizations. He and his supporters threatened to shut them down and dissident activists have been silenced and jailed.
On February 24, 2022, Kais Saied announced that he wanted to ban foreign funding for associations. For him, associations applying for or receiving foreign funding are “suspicious activities”.
Consequently, the civil society ceased to play its role in monitoring and reporting migration issues and in delivering credible information and data about it.
The author is writing anonymously to protect their identity