Saied’s Tunisia: Where black lives don’t matter

Saied’s Tunisia: Where black lives don’t matter
The Tunisian president’s hate speech against black African migrants which fuelled increasing attacks on the already vulnerable minority, is an attempt to distract from his failures in managing the country’s economy, writes Cierra Powell.
5 min read
26 Apr, 2023
Protest in front of UNHCR Headquarter in the capital Tunis, Tunisia, demanding help getting evacuated from the country amid increased wave of violence targeting them. [GETTY]

When a foolhardy presidential power grab goes wrong and your indebted nation nears default, do not drown it in racism and hatred against black people. President Kais Saied’s hate speech against black migrants is a desperate attempt to distract from poor governance amidst economic stagnation, soaring inflation, and an essential goods shortage.

Saied’s February tirade labeled migrants from sub-Saharan Africa as Tunisia’s source of violence and crime, and accused them of playing part in “a criminal plan to change the composition of the demographic landscape in Tunisia” to just another African country, rather than an Arab and Islamic nation. Saied’s hate speech has fuelled conspiracy theories that have turned into racially motivated attacks and has left unanswered the political and economic upheavals of Tunisia.

Saied must answer for his reckless rhetoric and ensure that Tunisia protects the rights and dignity of migrants.

''Now is the time to meet the obligations under international law and protect the rights of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers from marginalisation and deprivation.''

In just one week, Saied’s xenophobic hate speech resulted in 300 politically motivated and racially inspired arrests. Today, migrants are terrified to leave their homes or attend classes, and hundreds are fleeing via repatriation flights, despite legal status. Black migrants are forcibly evicted, jobs terminated, banned from public transit, houses burned, and physically attacked. Black Tunisians are even reporting the rise in harassment solely based on skin colour.

If that was not enough, Saied took it further and threatened the judiciary in their attempts to uphold rule of law, noting: “Anyone who dares to acquit them is their accomplice.”

Civil society groups have taken hundreds of calls for shelter, food, and necessities, although the number of those in need is unknown. Some calls have represented a request for aid for more than one household, whereas others simply do not know who to call. To escape hell on earth, sub-Saharan countries, including Mali, Ivory Coast, and Gabon, are encouraging their respective nationals to register for voluntary repatriation.

The world is responding to Saied’s baseless accusations. More than 40 civil society organisations and hundreds of activists have gathered in Tunis to denounce Saied’s hate speech.

Unsurprisingly, the hate-mongering was supported from the far-right and xenophobes like Eric Zemmour from France. However, the rest of the world took a step back from, deeply disturbed by the climate of fear and reports of violence.

The IMF is worried and the World Bank paused its work with Tunisia noting concerns that Saied triggered “racially motivated harassment and even violence.” The African Union postponed a conference meant to be hosted in Tunisia, strongly condemning Saied’s racialised hate speech and reminding of Tunisia’s obligation to respect the dignity of migrants, as member within the 55-member regional body.

Despite an overwhelmingly negative global response, Saied’s bigotry continues and the Foreign Ministry clamours together irrationally accusing critics, including the United States, France, the AU, and European Commission of misinterpreting the racialised hate speech. Without shame, the Foreign Ministry even attempted to “reassure” – if you can call it that – foreign ambassadors that migrants with legal status “have nothing to worry about."

Let us be clear, hate speech does not answer the political paralysis and economic crisis being endured by Tunisians, nor do the sub-Saharan African migrants that make up less than one percent of the population. This hate-mongering is a vilified attempt to scapegoat for Saied’s failures as head of state. Tunisia’s economy remains poorly managed and he has done little to stop ongoing corruption. Instead, he has fuelled a migrant crisis and racially motivated violence.

Rather than policing streets to arrest people for being black, president Saied must call off the arbitrary arrests and crackdown on the racially motivated attacks. He must also bear responsibility for his unfounded statements and coordinate local authorities with international humanitarian organisations to facilitate the safe, dignified, and voluntary return of migrants that wish to return to their respective country of origin.

Now is the time to meet the obligations under international law and protect the rights of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers from marginalisation and deprivation.

Tunisia must launch an administrative process for undocumented migrants for regulation and management. And while the Foreign Ministry currently claims that Tunisia is among the world’s best countries to live in, migrants, even with legal status, continue to endure insufferable and dangerous work conditions. New policies that focus on the nexus between migration and rural development are critical to pulling Tunisia out of its highly uncertain and bleak outlook.

Fostering integration and productivity of migrants in Tunisia, in addition to targeted interventions for labor mobility and rural-to-urban development will safeguard a more promising and prosperous future for Tunisia.

President Saied, your incumbent takeover failed. Do not root Tunisia into another crisis of violence and division of your own doing. The world and Tunisians will not stand for it. As the slogan of the protestors goes: “Solidarity with migrants of the whole world.”

Cierra Powell is a Master’s Degree student at Penn State's School of International Affairs. She is graduating in May, then will pursue work in the diplomatic sphere. She is currently studying Tunisia as part of a course she is attending at the university on North Africa after the Arab Spring.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.