Saied, who was elected in 2019 and has since consolidated power and led the crackdown on his critics, in February focused his anger on sub-Saharan Africans in the country, accusing them of taking part in a conspiratorial conspiracy to change the demographics of Tunisia. it “just an African country that has no connection with Arab and Muslim nations.”
In remarks to national security advisers on Feb. 21, published on the presidency’s website, Saied blamed “hordes of irregular migrants” for violence and crime, in what critics called an attempt to scapegoat immigrants for the country’s problems and distract from his government’s arrests of opposition leaders.
Racist rhetoric from the Tunisian president sparks fear among migrants and black Tunisians
Concerns that his rhetoric would encourage Tunisians to attack or otherwise persecute black residents have been confirmed. Racist hate speech has spread online, as have reports of sub-Saharan African migrants suddenly becoming homeless or unemployed, while landlords and employers express fears of legal repercussions. In an interview with Tunisian television station Attessia last month, Houssemeddine Jebabli, spokesman for the Tunisian National Guard, threatened the arrest of those who employ or harbor unauthorized immigrants.
Human Rights Watch has received reports of an increase in violence and discrimination against black residents, said Salsabil Chellali, the Tunisian director of the global rights organization. These include reports of groups of Tunisians gathering outside buildings housing migrants from sub-Saharan Africa to intimidate them, in some cases by throwing stones or lighting fires. Other black migrants have been attacked or their property stolen or vandalized, Chellali said, and black international students at universities have faced harassment, driving some to remote courses.
Black migrants have long had racism in Tunisia, she said, “but the president’s speech has really fanned the flames.”
As conditions worsen, some migrants camp in front of their embassies or in front of the Tunis headquarters of the International Organization for Migration, an agency of the United Nations. Countries such as Ivory Coast, Mali and Guinea have started flying citizens over.
The official Twitter account of the Guinea Presidency shared images last week that interim president Mamadi Doumbouya hugged women and children flown back from Tunisia. A second repatriation flight landed on Saturday, with 48 Guineans – some of whom required medical treatment.
“These compatriots who fled persecution and rejection in Tunisia were greeted with honor and dignity,” the Guinean presidency said in a statement on Saturday, promising the government would support returnees.
Ivory Coast said it would take a census of nationals who want to leave Tunisia and fly them out. So far, about 1,300 Ivorians have applied for repatriation, French public radio network Radio France Internationale reported on Saturday. It said the first repatriation flight flew 145 Ivorian nationals from Tunis on Saturday morning.
The Nigerian government is considering carrying out evacuations itself, an official agency charged with dealing with members of the Nigerian diaspora tweeted Monday.
According to official figures, the repatriations represent only a small proportion of the approximately 21,000 sub-Saharan African migrants living in Tunisia. It remains unclear whether there will be a wider exodus. But the rooms reflect the climate of fear that has developed.
Black citizens have posted on social media that they have been harassed on the streets or dragged into police raids as they have been mistaken for undocumented migrants. In response, some have launched a social media campaign, posting selfies with their Tunisian identity documents along with a protest hashtag: roughly “my papers are with me, just in case”.
According to Zeineb Mrouki of Lawyers Without Borders, an international human rights organization, which has provided legal aid to some of the detainees, some 860 black migrants have been arrested in recent weeks. Some were found to be legally in the country and were released, she said, while at least 69 have been sentenced to a month behind bars for violating Tunisia’s immigration laws.
“The problem is that the country doesn’t have many resources to repatriate these migrants,” Mrouki said.
Some undocumented migrants enter Tunisia via irregular routes, while many others arrive legally and overstay their visas. To leave, they must pay a fine of about $6 a week for overstaying — a priceless sum for those who have lived in the country illegally for years, in uncertainty.
Obtaining legal papers can be difficult for migrant workers, Ange Séri Soka, president of the Union of Ivorians in Tunisia, told French public radio. “I can say that Tunisia has become an open-air prison for us Sub-Saharan Africa,” he said.
Saied’s anti-migrant campaign has garnered a stronger backlash from international partners than his erosion of Tunisia’s democratic institutions.
The African Union, denouncing Saied’s comments, has canceled a conference to be held in Tunisia this month, Bloomberg News reported Monday. The World Bank has suspended talks about future projects in Tunisia, Agence France-Presse reported, citing an internal memo from the bank’s outgoing president David Malpass to staff.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said Monday that the United States was “deeply concerned” by Saied’s comments and the arrests of migrants.
“These comments are inconsistent with Tunisia’s long history of generosity and reception and protection of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, and we are disturbed by reports of violence against these migrants,” Price said in a news conference.
But some analysts have blasted the US government for its relatively muted, conciliatory attitude towards the Tunisian government, which critics say is sliding further into authoritarianism.
Analysis: The West shrugs as a democracy dies
Faced with international disapproval, the Tunisian government has tried to contain damage. Foreign Minister Nabil Ammar called allegations of official racism “unjust” and “unacceptable” at a press conference Monday, official Tunisian news agency TAP said. reported.
In a statement on Monday, the government said it was “an honor for Tunisia to be an African state”.
“Tunisia will remain a state that will struggle for the oppressed and triumph for the victims of any form of racial discrimination,” the statement said.
The government also announced measures to help foreigners living in Tunisia, including providing medical and psychological support to migrants, offering one-year residence permits to students from other African countries and exempting “African brothers” from fines for overstaying visas.
Authorities also set up an information hotline to help foreigners and promised to coordinate with embassies to “facilitate voluntary departures”.
However, some officials have doubled down on their xenophobic rhetoric. Dhour Elfakar Ibn Ahmed, a senior diplomat at the Tunisian Embassy in Ivory Coast, told The Ivorian channel L’Intelligent TV said on Friday that the theory of the “great replacement” in Tunisia “is not a theory – we are facing a situation of facts.”
Civil society activists have protested and united in an “anti-fascist front” to provide emergency aid to migrants facing persecution or made homeless.
The turmoil comes as dissatisfaction with Saied rises. Key figures who initially supported his power grab in July 2021 soured the president as he ramped up arrests of critics while doing little to address the country’s economic crisis.
The influential Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail, the country’s largest trade union, held a large demonstration in central Tunis on Saturday, calling for the release of detained political figures and condemning Saied’s comments about migrants.
Chellali said the government measures announced this week are a step in the right direction. “But it’s not enough,” she said, calling for the prosecution of those behind racist attacks and discrimination.