Tunisia: President's offensive statements targeted black migrants - with widespread fallout

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Tunisia: President's offensive statements targeted black migrants - with widespread fallout
Credit: © Reuters.

President of Tunisia, Kais Saied (R) meets Guinea-Bissau's President Umaro Sissoco Embalo in Tunis on 8 March 2023. Tunisian Presidency / Anadolu Agency via Getty ImagesThe statement by Tunisian President Kais Saied that “urgent measures” were needed “against illegal immigration of nationals from sub-Saharan Africa” which were causing “violence and crime” set off a nation-wide violent backlash against migrants.

The statement, which followed a national security meeting, and the subsequent backlash against migrants, were followed by international condemnation, including from within Africa.

Estimates of migrants in Tunisia vary, from 21,000 formally documented migrants, to 59,000, including 9,000 registered refugees and asylum-seekers.

The president noted in his inflammatory statement that the “incessant flow” and “hordes of illegal migrants” were aimed at changing the demographics of the country “threatening its Arabic and Islamic character”.

The offensive statement – and consequent reprisals – are deeply shocking and have already had repercussions. In Tunisia, where anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise, far-right groups have been bolstered in their aggressive stance towards immigrants. Thousands of immigrants have fled. Those that remain face attacks on their dignity.

Tunisia has been condemned by the African community, the strongest measure being taken by the African Union. It cancelled its meeting scheduled for Tunis, the Tunisian capital. Four West African countries - Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast - either evacuated their citizens or called for caution.

There have also been calls by sub-Saharan African countries for a boycott of Tunisian products. Tunisian civil society groups, human rights activists, and artists also condemned the attacks on migrants.

This is yet another outcome of the migration policies imposed by the European Union on Tunisia. It also adds to a gradual isolation and alienation of the country from its neighbours on the continent in a time of political and socio-economic crisis.

Within Tunisia, the recent attacks on migrants contribute to further polarisation within the different factions of the society, especially between NGOs mobilising against anti-migrant racism and the perpetual spread and appeal of populist and conspiracy-theory parties.

Anti-migrant violence

The migrants and refugees in the country come from different parts of the world, including Syria. But most are from countries in sub-Saharan Africa, West Africa in particular. Reasons for their stay vary but include study, work and for many the transit onward to Europe when the opportunity arises.

Racist incidents against sub-Saharan refugees and migrants and hate speech are not new in Tunisia. Nevertheless, what followed this particularly inflammatory speech by President Saied was a large scale “security” campaign of random and arbitrary arrests by the security forces of hundreds of sub-Saharan migrants. They have been detained in illegal centres.

This systematic and racist violence has affected a range of men, women, children and even infants from immigrant families. It included physical attacks, migrants being fired from their jobs, kicked out of their accommodation and even schools and daycare centres.

Fear was widespread and hundreds of migrants camped in front of the International Organisation for Migration and United Nations High Commission for Refugees offices in the cold, seeking protection.

Online anti-migrant discussion and hate speech have risen recently. The far-right Tunisian Nationalist Party grew from a few thousand subscribers in January to more than 50,000 by the end of February, alarming in the speed that the appeal to this party took on.

Even prior to the statement by the president, the group had succeeded in raising more than a million signatures in a petition to expel undocumented sub-Saharan migrants. This shows his populist attempt to respond to an already widely spread xenophobic sentiment.

The anti-migrant violence comes in an overall context of failure to deal with the deep economic and social crises in Tunisia. These have worsened since Saied’s authoritarian power grab on the 25 July 2021.

This has not only involved a frequent link to conspiracy theories in public narratives, but has also created an environment of high unemployment, amid shortages in basic products and soaring food prices.

Tunisian society has been polarised. Fear and hate speech have spread online, and there has been an increasing crackdown on civil society and political opposition.

Scapegoating

The anti-migrant backlash is politically useful in this environment: scapegoating migrants can divert from the continuous failure to address many of these domestic issues, as seen in other contexts such as South Africa.

Migrants are constructed as “a burden” to an already poor infrastructure and economy, a danger to the public, and pawns of foreign funded parties in Tunisia to colonise it again. The statement and crackdown on migrants is aimed at gaining more popularity, especially after the low elections turn out in 2022.

Reactions

Dozens of civil society groups, human rights activists and artists signed a collective statement calling for a rally against Saied’s comments and the aftermath it caused. Hundreds of people have protested on the streets, chanting “Down with fascism, Tunisia is an African country.”

Countries within the region were quick to respond. Guinea was the first to repatriate around 50 of their nationals for their own safety and dignity. Mali flew home around three times as many a few days later.

Cote d’Ivoire also offered to fly back their own citizens. The Burkina Faso ambassador in Tunis expressed his solidarity in this “difficult situation”. There have been calls to boycott Tunisian products, especially in Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Senegal and Mali.

The African Union (AU) released a statement a day after the offensive remarks. It strongly criticised Tunisia and urged it to avoid “racialised hate speech”. A previously planned AU meeting in Tunis for mid-March was cancelled.

These responses remind us of the reaction in 2017 to the release of CNN footage of African migrants and refugees being auctioned off in slave markets in Libya. A major outrage unfolded across the continent and reactions included Burkina Faso recalling its ambassador to Libya.

Countries including Nigeria airlifted thousands of their citizens out of Libya.

Governments have been reluctant to accept returns from Europe. But attitudes towards returns from the region are different.

It is difficult to know what the foreign policy aims are of Tunisia under Saied.

On 8 March, President Cissoko Emballo from Guinea Bissau visited Tunisia, also in his role as chairperson of the Economic Community of West African States. During the visit, Saied backtracked from his insidious remarks, arguing his statement was misinterpreted. Not only were members of his family married to “Africans” and he had friends who were “Africans”, but in response to President Emballo, he conceded “I am indeed [African], and a proud African”.

A range of new measures were quickly announced including a hotline to report human rights violations, psychological assistant for migrants and a waiver of fees for residency permit violations if migrants agree to return to their country of origin.

But the state-sponsored violence has continued.

The fallout

For countries and people in the region, this is just another dimension of the unpopular externalisation policies imposed on them by the European Union. The goal is reduce migration to Europe.

Making Tunisia unlivable for sub-Saharan migrants plays into the deterrence strategy being pursued by the European Union. But the attacks are likely to affect Tunisia’s standing on the continent. Diplomatic relations will be adversely affected by the racist attacks.

Civil society groups are already demanding the suspension of Tunisia from the African Union.

The outlook for individual migrants is bleak. They will continue living in an atmosphere of fear and danger. And for the wider Tunisian population the xenophobic attacks will only create more division at a time when soaring living costs and multiple international and domestic crises make solidarity - including on the continent - essential.

Tunisia needs allies to overcome these multiple crisis. Increasing isolation will not help.

Nermin Abbassi, a graduate student of political sciences at the University of Cologne and research assistant contributed to this article

Franzisca Zanker does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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