Facing attacks, arrest and discrimination in Tunisia, sub-Saharan African migrants are fleeing the country as a government crackdown on illegal immigration spirals into vigilante violence against Black people.
Saied, who was elected in 2019 and has since consolidated power and presided over a crackdown on his critics, in February turned his ire on sub-Saharan Africans in the country, accusing them of taking part in a conspiratorial plot to change Tunisia’s demographics to make it “only an African country that has no affiliation to Arab and Islamic 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.
Concerns that his rhetoric would embolden Tunisians to attack or otherwise persecute Black residents have been borne out. Racist hate speech has proliferated online — as have accounts of sub-Saharan African migrants finding themselves suddenly homeless or jobless, as landlords and employers cite worries they could face legal repercussions. In an interview with Tunisian television station Attessia last month, Houssemeddine Jebabli, spokesman for the Tunisian National Guard, threatened with arrest those who employ or provide accommodations to unauthorized immigrants.
Human Rights Watch has received reports of an uptick in violence and discrimination directed at Black residents, said Salsabil Chellali, the global rights organization’s Tunisia director. These include accounts of groups of Tunisians gathering outside buildings housing sub-Saharan African migrants to intimidate them, in some cases throwing stones or lighting fires. Other Black migrants have been attacked or had their property stolen or vandalized, Chellali said, and Black international students at universities have faced harassment, driving some to remote coursework.
Black migrants have long faced racism in Tunisia, she said, “but really the speech of the president has fanned the flames.”
As conditions worsen, some migrants are camping in front of their embassies or the Tunis headquarters of the International Organization for Migration, a United Nations agency. Countries including the Ivory Coast, Mali and Guinea have begun airlifting citizens out.
The official Twitter account of the Guinea presidency shared images last week of interim president Mamadi Doumbouya embracing women and children who were flown back from Tunisia. A second repatriation flight landed Saturday, carrying 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 Saturday, pledging that the government would support returnees.
The Ivory Coast said it would take a census of nationals wishing to leave Tunisia and fly them out. Some 1,300 Ivorians have signed up to be repatriated so far, French public radio network Radio France Internationale reported Saturday. It said the first repatriation flight airlifted 145 Ivorian nationals from Tunis on Saturday morning.
The Nigerian government is considering evacuations of its own, an official body charged with engaging with members of the Nigerian diaspora tweeted Monday.
The repatriations represent only a sliver of the approximately 21,000 sub-Saharan African migrants living in Tunisia, per official figures. It remains unclear whether a broader exodus will materialize. But the departures reflect the climate of fear that has taken hold.
Black citizens have posted on social media about being harassed on the street or swept up in police raids, 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 on me, just in case.”
Some 860 Black migrants have been arrested in recent weeks, according to Zeineb Mrouki of Lawyers Without Borders, an international rights group, which has provided legal aid to some of the detainees. Some were found to be in the country legally and 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 does not have many resources to repatriate” these migrants, Mrouki said.
Some undocumented migrants enter Tunisia by irregular routes, while many others arrive legally and overstay their visas. To depart, they must pay a fine of about $6 per week they have overstayed — a prohibitive fee for those who have lived in the country illegally for years, in precarity.
For migrant workers, gaining legal papers can be difficult, Ange Séri Soka, president of the Union of Ivorians in Tunisia, told French public radio. “I can say that Tunisia has become, for us sub-Saharans, an open-air prison,” he said.
Saied’s anti-migrant campaign has drawn a stronger response from international partners than his erosion of Tunisia’s democratic institutions.
The African Union, which denounced Saied’s remarks, has canceled a conference it was scheduled to hold 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” about Saied’s comments and arrests of migrants.
“These remarks are not in keeping with Tunisia’s long history of generosity and hosting and protecting refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, and we’re disturbed by reports of violence against these very migrants,” Price said in a news briefing.
But some analysts have blasted the U.S. administration for its relatively muted, conciliatory stances toward the Tunisian government, which critics say is sliding further toward authoritarianism.
Facing international censure, the Tunisian government has tried to do damage control. Foreign Minister Nabil Ammar called allegations of official racism “unjust” and “unacceptable” at a news conference Monday, Tunisian official news agency TAP reported.
In a statement 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 prevail for the victims of any kind of racial discrimination,” the statement said.
The government also announced measures to assist foreigners living in Tunisia, including by providing medical and psychological support for migrants, offering one-year residency 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.”
Some officials, though, have doubled down on xenophobic rhetoric. Dhour Elfakar Ibn Ahmed, a senior diplomat at the Tunisian Embassy in the Ivory Coast, told Ivorian channel L’Intelligent TV on Friday that the “great replacement” theory in Tunisia “is not a theory — we are faced with a situation of facts.”
Civil society activists have held protests and banded together in an “anti-fascist front” to provide emergency assistance to migrants facing persecution or homelessness.
The turmoil comes as discontent with Saied rises. Key figures who initially supported his power grab in July 2021 soured on the president as he stepped up arrests of critics while doing little to address the country’s economic crisis.
The influential Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail, the country’s major labor union, held a large demonstration in downtown Tunis on Saturday, calling for the release of detained political figures and condemning Saied’s remarks about migrants.
Chellali said the government measures announced this week were a step in the right direction. “But it’s not sufficient,” she said, calling for the people behind racist attacks and discrimination to be prosecuted.