Tunisian rights groups slam Saied's 'racist' migrant comments

Tunisian rights groups slam Saied's 'racist' migrant comments
4 min read
23 February, 2023
Tunisia's president has come under attack from rights group after his recent comments on African migrants.
More than 21,000 sub-Saharan Africans live in Tunisia [Getty/archive]

Tunisian rights groups accused on Wednesday President Kais Saied of racism and hate speech after he said "hordes" of sub-Saharan African migrants were causing crime and posed a demographic threat.

Saied, who has seized almost total power since a dramatic July 2021 move against parliament, had urged his national security council to take "urgent measures" to tackle irregular migration.

A statement from his office, decrying "a criminal plot... to change Tunisia's demographic make-up" without citing any evidence, has sparked an outcry online.

"Hordes of illegal immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa are still arriving, with all the violence, crime and unacceptable practices that entails," Saied told his national security council on Tuesday evening, according to the statement.

Some Tunisians have taken to social media to accuse the president of outright racism and invoking right-wing conspiracy theories.

Advocacy group the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES) said Wednesday Saied's discourse was "drowning in racism and hatred".

"The president is using the migration crisis... to distract attention from economic and social problems," spokesman Romdhane Ben Amor told AFP.

Tunisians are grappling with a deepening economic crisis, surging inflation and shortages of essential goods as the heavily indebted North African country edges towards a possible default.

Saied, who has prioritised revamping Tunisia's post-revolt democracy to install a system that concentrates power in the hands of the presidency, has blamed the shortages on unidentified "speculators".

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More than 21,000 sub-Saharan Africans live in Tunisia, including those with student visas and other legal residency, the FTDES says, citing official figures.

Many irregular migrants from the Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Ghana and Guinea work badly paid, unofficial jobs to get by and save up for attempts to reach Italy.

Ben Amor said Saied's latest comments showed he had "obviously and totally caved in to pressure from the Italian authorities to stop the flow of migrants" towards European shores.

Tunisian anti-racism group Mnemty said it "condemns this racist discourse, which incites hatred and aggression, enmity and violence against black sub-Saharan African migrants".

In a joint statement, a coalition of 18 rights groups expressed their "complete and unconditional solidarity with sub-Saharan immigrants and their defenders".

Mostafa Abdelkebir, president of the Tunisian Observatory of Human Rights, said on Facebook the president's rhetoric does not represent the country "at all".

Saied's comments did win some praise, including from far-right French former presidential candidate Eric Zemmour, who was fined in 2011 for claiming on TV that "most drug dealers are black and Arab".

On Wednesday, Zemmour said in an online post that countries in North Africa were "themselves starting to sound the alarm" over migration.

"Now Tunisia wants to take urgent measures to protect its people," he said.

Last week, 23 rights groups said the state had already started cracking down on migrants, as well as turning a blind eye to racist "hate speech".

The organisations, including the FTDES, said some 300 migrants had been detained, often after simple identity checks or after attending court hearings to support relatives.

They added that European migration policies were pushing Tunisia to play a key role in surveillance of migration routes and intercepting migrant boats in the central Mediterranean.

Tunisia, which lies about 130 kilometres (80 miles) from the Italian island of Lampedusa at its closest point, is a key departure point for African migrants seeking to reach Europe on what the United Nations says is the world's deadliest migration route.

According to official Italian figures, more than 32,000 migrants, including 18,000 Tunisians, made clandestine journeys from Tunisia to Italy last year.

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