Once known as a success story of the Arab Spring, Tunisia is now making headlines for its anti-black African policies and mass expulsion of sub-Saharan migrants and asylum-seekers.
According to the international NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW), Tunisian security forces have expelled several hundred black African migrants including children and pregnant women to a remote and militarised buffer zone on the Tunisia-Libya border since 2 July.
They include people with both regular and irregular status in Tunisia who were rounded up in and around the port city of Sfax in the southeast of the country.
The Mediterranean city is an attraction point for black African migrants and asylum-seekers of West African region who benefit from visa-free status in Tunisia.
Black Africans in Tunisia have been the subject of sporadic racist assaults for years, but this escalated in recent months following a speech by Tunisian President Kais Saied five months ago in which he called for “urgent action” to halt sub-Saharan migration to the country.
In a speech in February, Saied charged that undocumented immigration from sub-Saharan African countries to Tunisia was part of a “criminal plan” designed to change the country’s demographic composition.
The “successive waves” of irregular migration to Tunisia are “a criminal plan” designed to “consider it solely African with no affiliation to the Arab or Islamic nations,” he said.
The statements triggered racist attacks against sub-Saharan Africans in Tunisia accompanied by robberies, evictions, and job losses as residents of Sfax campaigned for African foreigners to leave the country.
These escalated to the recent attacks against black migrants and clashes between them and Tunisians. Last week a Tunisian man was killed in Sfax, and a migrant from the West African state of Benin was killed in May.
The World Bank, a major donor to Tunisia, has said it has paused future work with the North African country until further notice in response to Saied’s speech, and the African Union (AU), of which Tunisia is a member, has urged Tunisia to avoid “racialised hate speech.”
The AU said it had summoned the Tunisian representative to the organisation for an urgent meeting to register its “deep shock” at Saied’s remarks. Both the Tunisian Foreign Ministry and presidency responded with statements denying the accusations, the latter insisting that Saied’s speech had been “maliciously interpreted.”
Even so, the crackdown on sub-Saharan migrants has continued in full force. Videos circulating on social media in early July depicted groups of Tunisian men threatening black Africans with batons and knives, and in other videos security officers were seen shoving them into vans while people cheered, HRW said in a statement this week.
An investigation by HRW estimated that Tunisian security forces have expelled between 500 to 700 people to a dangerous area on the Tunisian-Libyan border with little food and no medical assistance.
At least six of those expelled were asylum-seekers registered with the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR, and at least two adults had consular cards identifying them as students in Tunisia.
People interviewed by the international rights group said they had been arrested in raids by police, national guard, or military in and around Sfax, before they were transported 300 km to the Libyan border where they were effectively trapped in what they described as a “buffer zone” from which they could neither enter Libya nor return to Tunisia.
The expelled migrants told HRW that several people had died or been killed at the border area between 2 and 5 July, including some shot and others beaten by the Tunisian military or national guard.
They alleged that Libyan men carrying machetes or other weapons had robbed some people and raped several women, either in the buffer zone or after they had managed to cross into Libya to look for food.
Saied, a retired professor of constitutional law, was elected president in 2019 on an independent, pan-Arab leaning platform that revealed little about his conservative politics. In 2021, he consolidated his power by suspending the constitution, dissolving parliament, and then arresting the parliament’s speaker and opposition figures.
While his popularity was affected by these measures, Tunisians have grown more discontented with the country’s crippling economic crisis, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and the fallout from Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Critics say that Saied’s anti-black African narrative is meant to deflect attention from the growing economic crisis in the country while scapegoating migrants who account for 0.5 per cent of Tunisia’s population.
The country is seeking a $4 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and had reached a staff-level agreement with the Washington-based lender. However, the IMF board did not approve the deal, planned for December 2022, as prior government actions were not met.
In June, the international ratings agency Fitch Ratings downgraded Tunisia’s credit-rating on concerns that it was struggling to meet IMF requirements to clinch a financing deal.
According to Jean-Pierre Cassarino, an expert on international migration in the Maghreb and North Africa region, officially documented migrants from sub-Saharan Africa number around only 21,000 persons out of a total immigrant population of around 58,000.
In addition to visa-free agreements between Tunisia and a number of West African countries, there are also several bilateral university agreements that often make Tunisia an attractive destination for sub-Saharan students who have obtained scholarships or who wish to continue their training in Tunisian universities.
However, even students with regular status in Tunisia can be rendered irregular due to the country’s cumbersome bureaucracy.
Other migrants come to Tunisia to work or to attempt to cross to Europe from its Mediterranean shores. Due to the unofficial nature of these migrants, there are no precise figures, but at least 23,328 irregular migrants were intercepted by Tunisian authorities trying to cross to Europe in 2021.
Following the death of a Tunisian man earlier this month in clashes with sub-Saharan migrants in Sfax, Saied reiterated his statements against black African migrants.
“Tunisia is a country that only accepts people residing on its territory in accordance with its laws,” he said. “It does not accept to be a transit or settlement zone for people arriving from numerous African countries.”
In contrast to its intolerance of black African migration, Tunisia’s migrant policy “is quite open with European immigrants and very restrictive with non-EU citizens,” Cassarino said.
On the ground, Tunisia’s approach to migration and migration rights “oscillates between the need to comply with international standards and the necessity to maximise the benefits of its citizens living abroad, such as remittances or the transfer of skills acquired abroad.”
“This means it needs to try to keep its migration policies quite open. At the same time, it wants to act as a credible player in the fight against irregular migration in its interactions with the European Union and its member states. This means that Tunisia needs to show it can cooperate with the EU and its member states as well as control its own borders,” he said.
According to Avocats sans Frontières (ASF), an organisation providing legal aid to asylum-seekers and migrants, at least 840 black African migrants, students, and asylum-seekers have been rounded up in cities in Tunisia since Saied’s speech in February.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 13 July, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly