Six weeks after an incendiary speech by Tunisian President Kais Saied triggered a surge in racist violence against sub-Saharan migrants, hundreds of its victims are still camped on a cobblestone lane outside the headquarters of the UN’s migration agency, IOM, asking for emergency evacuation.
“Our lives are under threat,” said Josephus Thomas, a political refugee from Sierra Leone, standing among the makeshift tents and hastily packed bags lining the pavement in the capital, Tunis. “The situation is getting worse by the day.”
Thomas, 30, has few other options. The former building site labourer lost his job – with his boss even refusing to pay the wages he was owed – and his apartment was looted by a mob of young men looking for African migrants to beat up.
When The New Humanitarian first met him early last month, he was desperate, living rough with his wife and young child alongside 300 other people outside the IOM office, in miserable, unsanitary conditions.
Other migrants are sheltering in equally difficult circumstances outside the office of the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. For the past two weeks, there have been protests there by people demanding help in getting out of the country.
“The world needs to know we’re not safe in Tunisia,” said Thomas, who was at the demonstrations. “Europe doesn’t want us, but we need to leave. We’d like to go to any place in Africa where human rights are respected.”
The trigger for the xenophobic violence in Tunis and several other cities were comments made on 21 February by an increasingly authoritarian Saied when he ordered "urgent measures" to tackle irregular migration.
Tapping into the extremist rhetoric of the far-right Tunisian Nationalist Party, he described the presence of Black Africans as a “criminal plot” to alter the country’s demographic composition, turning it “solely African with no affiliation to the Arab or Islamic nations”.
Knife and club-wielding gangs took to the streets targeting anyone looking “African”. There were beatings, stabbings, and reported rapes. The police often either stood by, or in some cases arrested the victims.
“We’d like to go to any place in Africa where human rights are respected.”
Osman Sisi had a close escape trying to help other migrants being attacked in their homes in the Raoued suburb of the city. “When we fled our flat, I was covered in blood while carrying two kids [belonging to my neighbours] in my arms and one on my back,” he told The New Humanitarian.
He pulled up the sleeve of his jacket to show his bruises. “I feel pain everywhere,” Sisi said. He also lost the little cash he had saved to help his sick mother back in Sierra Leone.
In a climate fuelled in part by toxic social media posts, landlords have evicted migrants from their homes, with mobs then stealing their savings and destroying their belongings. Like Thomas, Black Africans have also been sacked by their employers, or detained after ethnically profiling ID checks by the security forces.
Some have been forcibly held at the al-Ouardia migrant centre in Tunis.
Others have experienced insults and racial slurs on the streets and avoid venturing out as much as possible. Those camped at the IOM headquarters stay within a narrow perimeter around the building, but groups of young men have still thrown stones and harassed them.
Looking to leave
There are an estimated 21,000 African migrants in the country, out of a Tunisian population of 12 million. About 7,200 are students enrolled in universities, and roughly 5,000 are registered refugees and asylum seekers.
The remainder are undocumented, arriving under a previously relaxed visa regime that allowed migrants into the country as cheap labour, or as they saved to make the crossing to Europe, 400 kilometres across the Mediterranean. They now face extreme difficulty in securing the right paperwork to regularise their stay in Tunisia.
Last month, the governments of Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Mali, and Senegal organised return flights for a few hundred of their citizens, including university students, but thousands more are stuck and looking to leave.
Tunisia had marketed itself on the continent as a cost-effective destination for further education. But Mahamadou Maiga, a Malian student who left Tunisia on 4 March after his apartment building was set on fire, said he was only too glad to get out. “We can’t study in that state of tension,” he told The New Humanitarian via WhatsApp.
“They were armed with sticks, knives, and sharp objects, chasing fellow Africans in the neighbourhood.”
Thomas came to Tunisia in early 2021 and found work as a building labourer. His wife Latisha, 27, and their son Manuel, joined him last year. Latisha worked on a farm a few hours' journey from Tunis.
When the violence began, mobs of Tunisian men were roaming the couple’s Ariana neighbourhood. “It was terrifying,” Thomas told The New Humanitarian. “They were armed with sticks, knives, and sharp objects, chasing fellow Africans in the neighbourhood.”
It took five days before he heard from Latisha that she was safe and in hiding with their son.
Without jobs, their property gone, the people camped outside the IOM and UNHCR offices have struggled to feed themselves. There is limited access to medical care and no ablution facilities. These new homeless sleep next to ever-growing piles of garbage ungathered by the city’s sanitation workers.
Some Tunisian citizens have rallied to help. Volunteers bring food, shelter material, water, hygiene products, and diapers for the children. Local associations are collecting donations to help keep that support going – although there have been reports that some groups have received online threats.
Only limited assistance has been delivered by UN humanitarian agencies. In a statement to The New Humanitarian, IOM said it was providing legal and psychological help to the most vulnerable and “emergency accommodation to migrants with a specific health/medical condition”.
UNHCR said it was working “closely with the government to promote a favourable protection environment for all refugees and asylum seekers”. But scared and frustrated, registered refugees The New Humanitarian spoke to said there was little evidence that was having any impact.
Saied’s anti-African migrant comments prompted international censure. The African Union said it amounted to “racialised hate speech”, and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said Tunisia must stop “all forms of racial discrimination and racist violence”.
The World Bank also suspended a high-level meeting, key to agreeing a new support programme for the heavily indebted government. That has complicated Tunisia’s search for a $2 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund.
Last month, Saied backpedalled, saying his position on immigration had been misinterpreted. On 5 March, the government announced a list of new, albeit limited, measures to facilitate the legal residency of migrants.
Although the violence has subsided, the situation remains tense. A spokesperson for the Association of African Students and Interns in Tunisia, who asked not to be named for security reasons, said he was advising students “against staying in working-class districts where a lot of racist aggression has occurred”.
Most students “don’t take taxis to avoid public transport, don’t go out alone, and don’t hang around”, he added.
Anti-African sentiment – which also targets Black Tunisians, who make up 10-15% of the population – is not new in Tunisia. Although the country was the first in North Africa and the Middle East region to pass a law criminalising racial discrimination in 2018, the Saeid-supporting Tunisian Nationalist Party has tapped into a vein of resentment and is campaigning for its repeal.
The party echoes the global far-right’s “great replacement” rhetoric, pushing a relentlessly bigoted message that portrays migrants as a threat.
The security establishment employs similar language, while commentators in mainstream media have defended the government’s determination to expel undocumented migrants as a necessary “law and order” measure.
The migrant crackdown is part of wider lurch into authoritarianism by Saied since he came to power in 2019. Two years later, he suspended parliament, dissolving it entirely in July 2022 to achieve near-total power in what has been described as a “self-coup”.
There has been a wave of arrests of political and civil society opponents who Saied describes as “enemies of Tunisia”. There have also been military trials of civilians, and restrictions on freedom of expression.
It comes as the country – once the Arab world’s only democracy – struggles with rising food and fuel prices, an unemployment rate of 15%, and a $39 billion external debt. Fake viral videos have blamed those economic woes on sub-Saharan Africans.
“We’re scared here, people look at us as if we’re not human.”
The hardships are forcing increasing numbers of Tunisians to attempt the Mediterranean crossing to Europe. They are the second largest nationality among migrants arriving in Italy using the Central Mediterranean route – roughly 17% of arrivals in 2022.
The country’s deep economic crisis – fuelled in part by the lingering impact of COVID-19 and rising grain prices due to the war in Ukraine – is seen by many commentators as one reason Saeid has seized on anti-migrant populism.
“Migrants and refugees are the easy targets of this scapegoating, which just incites racist violence,” Lauren Seibert, a refugee and migrant rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, told The New Humanitarian.
European countries – which invested heavily in Tunisia’s democratic transition since the 2011 Arab Spring revolution – are worried by the country’s economic troubles, and fear further political turmoil.
Tunisia is also regarded as a key potential partner in regulating migration, and the European Commission is currently looking to iron out a “cash for migrant control” deal with Tunis.
Yet Saied’s actions may force more sub-Saharans and Tunisians to make the dangerous sea crossing seeking a better life, Lawyers without Borders (ASF), which provides legal aid to asylum seekers and migrants, has warned.
“Many, feeling unwelcome, are pushed to take more unsafe migrant journeys, putting their lives at even greater risk,” Zeineb Mrouki, an ASF project coordinator, told The New Humanitarian.
“I want to be anywhere safe,” said Saddam Hammad, 29, a refugee from Sudan’s conflict-hit Darfur region, now sheltering on the pavement outside UNHCR’s office.
Hammad, who made it to Tunisia five months ago after surviving a harrowing journey through Libya and Algeria, added: “We’re scared here, people look at us as if we’re not human.”
Edited by Obi Anyadike.