Since February 2023, Tunisia has faced a strong escalation of racism and violence against black people both on an institutional level and from inside society.
An increasingly dictatorial president is copying racist conspiracy theories of European fascists alleging “population exchange” in the North African context, and blows the whistle on the hunt and criminalisation of west and central African migration, but also affecting students or black Tunisians. The fact that the Italian Minister of foreign affairs and the post-fascist prime minister were guests shortly before is probably no coincidence. Especially since they have offered their counterparts in Tunis to issue more visas for Tunisian seasonal workers in exchange for Tunisia to increase control on “irregular migrants“ and prevent departures from the Tunisian coasts. Also the French government still builds an European back up for the president Kais Saied, whose government was confronted with a „new world record“ of election boycott in December 2022: only 8,8 % of the eligible voters in Tunisia participated.
The following text is not a deeper analysis of the Tunisian situation but rather, fragments from different sources aiming to give an overview of the latest developments in Tunisia. Not to forget: Tunisia was and remains bargained by EU actors as “safe port“ or “safe third country“ for their ongoing interest to externalize the border regime to North Africa.
1. On the racist events in Tunisia – Background and Overview
In recent weeks, Black people in Tunisia face a repressive wave of arbitrary arrests and police and state violence as well as attacks by civil groups. Targeting people coming from Central and West African countries, the already existing racism in the country has escalated. Migration control collected material to give an overview on the current situation and its background.
6 March 2023
“For several months, a racist campaign against Sub-Saharans in Tunisia has been growing. The president himself subscribed to these racist and conspiracy theories and pointed the finger at the Sub-Saharans, accusing them of being ‚hordes‘ and that sub-Saharan immigration is a ‚criminal enterprise‘ whose goal would be to ‚change the demographic composition of Tunisia‘.“ In the press statement published on the 21 February 2023 following a National Security Council meeting, president Kais Saied resurrected many racist and xenophobic tropes used by other fascist movements. He „ordered security forces to take ‚urgent measures‘. […] Many of the estimated 21,000 sub-Saharan African people in Tunisia – most of whom are undocumented – lost their jobs and housing overnight.“ The Association of African Students and Interns in Tunisia highlights that there is an „ongoing systemic campaign of control and arrests targeting [Black immigration], independently from their status, who are not carrying their residency card with them.“ „In the first three weeks of February, at least 1,540 people were detained, mostly in Tunis and provinces near the Algerian border.“
The situation has become increasingly violent in the last weeks. In addition to the government forces targeting Black people, „violent attacks perpetrated by citizens, who taunt their victims with racial slurs“ are taking place. Attacked people report about fleeing „pogroming mobs consisting of, they said, 20+ Tunisian young men. ‚We were absolutely running for our lives,‘ said Latisha, who screamed at their son to run faster.“ There are accounts about „‚[a]rmed mobs‘ and rape ‚by these mobs.’“ On social media torture videos circulate. „In the suburbs of Tunis, a group of Sub-Saharan Africans have been attacked by young Tunisians who have broken down their doors and set fire to their building. Houses were ransacked.“
„Everyone who falls under the socially constructed category of ‘African’ – those with or without jobs, those with university classes to attend – are too scared to leave their homes because the racist violence has spread to every street in Tunisia.“ A law from 1968 that criminalizes assistance to „illegal residence“ in Tunisia, is now being applied. Patricia Gnahoré explains „that the evictions started around February 9, when alarmist messages began circulating on social networks: landlords would be facing fines and prison sentences if they housed undocumented Sub-Saharans.“ While some people are being supported by friends and activists who try to organize support, many have no choice but to sleep outside, with more than 100 people camping at the International Organization for Migration and in front of different embassies.
„Guinea [and Mali] and Cote d’Ivoire are repatriating their citizens from Tunisia.“ „However, many people living irregularly in Tunisia have accumulated large sums of outstanding fees over the years, too much for them to pay. While Tunisian authorities are themselves pushing migrants to leave, they still insist on cashing in on those who desperately want to.“
Haifa Mzalouat, Demonstration in Tunis, 25th February 2023 2023
The African Union highlights that they are in „deep shock and concern at the form and substance of the statement targeting fellow Africans, notwithstanding their legal status in the country.“ The events of the last days strongly impacted Tunisia’s image in the African continent and within the African Union. Furthermore, an „AU pan-African conference scheduled for mid-March in Tunis has been postponed. Former Senegalese Prime Minister Aminata Touré even called for Tunisia’s AU membership to be suspended and for the country to be excluded from the Africa Cup.“
Multiple protests have been taking place in Tunisia with demonstrators denouncing the racist and fascist violence. Already on February 25th „over 1,000 people marched through downtown Tunis to protest what they called Saied’s fascist overtures.“ „Henda Chennaoui, one of the principal figures in the country’s new Front Antifasciste […] [highlights that this is] ‚the first time in the history of the republic that the president used fascist and racist speech to discriminate against the most vulnerable and the marginalised.’“ Protests in front of Tunisian embassies are being organized around the world, such as in Paris, Berlin as well as Canada.
In the Front antifasciste – Tunisie activists and associations gather to organize support for Black people in the country. „Tunisian and foreign volunteers brought donations of food, water and blankets, along with some tents to help those displaced. […] [However,] associations collecting donations [for migrants] are receiving threats.“
President Saied is distracting from the political and economic situation in the country. He was elected in fall 2019 and his governing style has become increasingly authoritarian. „Over the last two weeks, a spate of high-profile arrests has rocked Tunisia, as over a dozen political figures, trade unionists and members of the media have been taken into custody on security or graft charges. Some have been dragged from their homes without warrants; others, put on trial before military courts, despite being civilians. Many are being held in what their lawyers say are inhumane conditions, crammed in cells with scores of prisoners and without beds.“ A terrorism law allows the authorities to hold people „for a maximum of 15 days without charge or consultation with a lawyer.“
In addition, „Saied has neutered parliament and pushed through a new constitution that gives him near-unlimited control and makes it almost impossible to impeach him.“ This was preceded and enabled by a very volatile situation in the country, as „there was increasing fragmentation within the executive branch, among state institutions, within and between political parties, within civil society, and even between regions of the country.“ The political and economic instability in the country, resulted in wide-spread support of his presidency, which has increasingly shifted to repressive centralization of power.
The statement and development are connecting to a growing populist discourse. „Saied’s crackdown on undocumented sub-Saharan immigrants has taken place in the context of the rise of the hitherto unknown Parti Nationaliste Tunisien, which has been pushing a racist agenda relentlessly since early February. The party has flooded social media with conspiracy theories and dubiously edited videos that have encouraged Tunisians to report on undocumented neighbours before they can ‚colonise‘ the country – the same conspiratorial language adopted by Saied.“
Tunisia „is struggling under crippling inflation and debt worth around 80 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP)“. In addition, there is a shortage of basic foods such as rice, which is putting a lot of pressure on the population. ‘Les Africains’ are used as a scapegoat for the lack of products such as rice. „The rice-crisis is not the first time that populations racialized as ‘African’ are blamed for a social and economic disaster in Tunisia, which in reality is a direct consequence of the state’s abandonment of marginalized communities and the pressures of global capitalism.“ However, since the racist tropes are connecting to a familiar discourse, the „crackdown on immigrants and Saied’s political opponents has […] won him favour among many in his working-class political base, who have been at the sharp end of a dire economic crisis.“
The current events seem to have triggered international responses since Italy now supports Tunisia as it „is seeking to obtain a loan from the IMF due to a severe economic crisis.“ This is being explicitly connected to Europe’s border interests (see section on Externalization & Immigration).
Ultimately these actions are enhancing the dependencies to Europe and weaken pan-African ties. „Kais Saied’s economic incompetence – as well as the refusal of North African governments to prioritize regional and inner-African trade which would allow evading dictates from the Global North and its proxies such as the IMF more effectively – are now once more fueling dynamics that in fact counter pan-African cooperation.“ In fact, the „president’s comments could also have direct consequences for Tunisian companies, which have increasingly expanded into other African countries in recent years. Guinean media report that several wholesalers have suspended imports of Tunisian products. Senegalese and Ivoirian importers want to join the boycott.“
In addition, according to Human Rights Watch „at least 40 students have been detained so far“. This will have a detrimental impact on the education market, since „[f]or Tunisian private universities, students from other African countries are an essential part of their business model.“
These factors might have contributed to the statement posted by the government on Facebook on March 5th, attempting to backpedal the racist campaign and highlighting their „astonishment“ about the violence in the last weeks. Apart from now emphasising „Tunisia’s African identity“ and the significance of the anti-discrimination law from 2018, it announces plans to enhance the legal security of African migrants in Tunisia. Whether and how the statement will be implemented remains to be seen, „[i]t appears likely that Tunisia is now also facing a considerable radicalization of its migration policies. […] Saied’s future migration policies, however, are likely to go beyond the ongoing wave of arrests, and in a worst-case scenario, will go even far beyond.“
Externalization & Immigration
„While the European Union’s violent securitization apparatus is indeed responsible for the oppression and murder of sub-Saharan migrants (and Tunisians) in Tunisia, the Tunisian state also contributes to their oppression and murder.“ Many people try to travel to Europe via and from Tunisia. „Its proximity to the EU’s external border has made Tunisia a major hub for migrants. Italy’s coasts are only around 150 kilometers (90 miles) away. Tunisia relaxed visa requirements in 2015, allowing many sub-Saharan and North Africans migrants to move to the country and work. […] Authorities frequently turned a blind eye to workers without permits who were saving for a journey to Europe.“ This renders Black migrants very vulnerable to exploitation as well as policy changes.
Already prior to the current escalation Black people experienced discrimination; Shreya Parikh highlighted in August 2022 that„Sub-Saharan women and men who depend on the labour market have spoken to me of persistent exploitation and racialised violence (both verbal and physical) at workplace.“ This is enhanced and enabled by the uncertain legal situation. „In the case of Tunisia, an im/migration non-policy is deliberately maintained by institutional actors at different levels (border police, internal affairs ministry, private legal agencies promising paper-work) because, among others, it is a lucrative site for corruption.“ This affects mostly Black people. „Most sub-Saharan migrants (like Western European migrants) enter Tunisia as legal migrants because of 3-month visa-free policies; but the Tunisian state forces all migrants to become illegal by its refusal to deliver legal documentation. This means that Tunisia also has European migrants living ‘illegally.’ But in the social and political construction of the ‘illegal migrant,’ white bodies never fit. It is the Black and dark-skinned bodies that are assumed to be illegal and criminal, as is clear from arrests of sub-Saharan migrants who carry residence permits, as well as absence of arrests of European ‘illegal’ migrants.“
The current developments have to be understood in the context of the externalization of the European border. The Tunisian Forum for Social and Economic Rights (FTDES) highlights that the „European border outsourcing policies have contributed for years to transform Tunisia into a key player in the surveillance of Mediterranean migration routes, including the interception of migrant boats outside territorial waters and their transfer to Tunisia. Discriminatory and restrictive policies in Algeria also contribute to pushing migrants to flee to Tunisia. These policies deepen the human tragedy of migrants in a Tunisia in political and socio-economic crisis.“ Sofian Philip Naceur analyses that „[a]s Saieds government continues to play along as the watchdog for the European border regime, though not without ostentatiously displaying its self-interest in migration control, the Italian government is suddenly soliciting financial support for Tunisia’s deeply troubled public coffers from the EU and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Interesting timing.“
So far, the President’s statement has only provoked supportive reactions from European politicians. The French far-right politician, Eric Zemmour, who is one of the most prominent supporters of the conspiracy theory of the „Great Replacement“, supported the statement on Twitter. And the Italian foreign minister Antonio Tajani expressed in a phone call with his Tunisian counterpart that „the Italian government is at the forefront of supporting Tunisia in its border control activities, in the fight against human trafficking, as well as in the creation of legal channels to Italy for Tunisian workers and in the creation of training opportunities as an alternative to migration“ without mentioning the current violence at all. Furthermore, Italy is sending 100 more pick-ups worth more than 3.6 million Euro to reinforce the Tunisian Ministry of the Interior in the fight against ‚irregular‘ immigration.
Or how Le Monde summarizes: „[The chancelleries] have not reacted to the presidential charge against sub-Saharan migrants. And for good reason: Mr. Said is responding rather positively to calls from Europe – primarily Italy – to better lock its maritime borders in order to stem the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean.“
2. Tunisia will not be fascist as Kais Saied wants
“We, […] consider that this inhuman discourse, which criminalizes a natural phenomenon inherent to human history and a universal human right, the freedom of movement – which capitalist globalization has made a privilege -, leads to discriminatory policies based on the externalization of European borders and immigration policy; strongly fractures the social fabric; exposes vulnerable migrants and Tunisians to the risk of racist attacks, similar to the risks that Tunisian migrants are exposed to elsewhere; and distorts the country’s history.”
Excerpt from the solidarity statement published by the “Front anti-fasciste tunisien”, 23 February 2023 (translation from Arabic)
3. Interview with Mohamed Salih Adam, “Protection of refugees in Tunisia”
By Alarm Phone Tunis
Can you introduce the “Protection of Refugees in Tunisia” movement: when was it created? And why?
The Refugee Protection Movement was created in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our aim was to inform refugees and asylum seekers about their rights and denounce the lack of support from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and its partners.
Picture “Protection of refugees in Tunisia”, March 2023
What is the situation of refugees in Tunisia?
The situation is really bad. All the rights of refugees are violated, there is no support provided to them and they are left to their fate. Many are forced to work very hard to cover their basic needs.
They are subjected to extortion and work long hours for low wages. The refugee status in Tunisia granted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) does not provide any protection. There is a lot of discrimination regarding the access to asylum in Tunisia, depending on nationality.
I was in Libya for two years and I think that Libya is not different from Tunisia, but rather the same thing. Everyone believes that Tunisia is a safe country, but they know the violations that happen to refugees and immigrants in general, such as exclusion and denial of all rights.
The fact that many people are taking boats to Europe from Tunisia is the biggest proof that Tunisia is not what everyone thinks. Tunisia is an unsafe country for immigrants and refugees. There is bullying and lack of acceptance of us by the Tunisian people.
How did the situation in Tunisia change for blacks after Kais Saeed’s speech?
This is a purely racist discourse that negatively affects refugees and immigrants. I think that after the violent racist attacks, it is not possible to stay in Tunisia. We have been expelled from our homes and businesses and have become homeless. We are now calling for evacuation from Tunisia. There is a consensus on hatred of black people everywhere, in public transportation, in the streets, at work… Racism is very strong.
Following the racist declaration of the President, we are now sleeping in front of the UNHCR office in Tunis to demand evacuation. We also made statements to the press. Our sit-in in front of the UNHCR office was forcibly dispersed by the police.
I don’t feel safe in Tunisia and fear criminalization because of my demands. I was already arrested and imprisoned in Abu Shusheh for political reasons. Now I am being watched by security personnel, they are following me everywhere. As many people here, I fear for my life in Tunisia. The situation in Tunisia is very bad and the refugee card does not give us any protection. This is why we demand evacuation from this country quickly.
4. Alarmphone 9th March: “In Tunisia, Black people are attacked on land and at sea!”
Article published in Echoes#5