Tunisia: Presidential scapegoating stokes fear and support

President Kais Saied’s comments have sparked attacks on sub-Saharan migrants amid a wider crackdown. But the African Union and others have called for an apology, giving hope to the migrants.

When Cederic Tumbes moved from the Republic of the Congo Tunisia About four months ago to study business management, he was looking forward to living in a safe and welcoming environment.

However, over the past week, the situation is much worse As a result of a speech by Tunisian President Kais Saied last Tuesday.

Speaking at a meeting of the National Security Council, Saied claimed that the aim was to change Tunisia’s demographic composition by increasing the number of sub-Saharan migrants entering the country, alleging that it would make Tunisia “African” rather than Threatens to turn into “African”. Arab-Muslim” country. He later called on security forces to stop illegal immigration and expel undocumented migrants.

‘Police didn’t point a finger’

In direct response to this speech, sub-Saharan families living in Tunisia were evicted from their homes, fired from work, and arbitrarily detained and harassed in the streets.

The morning after Said’s speech, Tumb was harassed on his way to Time University for the first time since arriving in Tunis. “When I reached the metro station, about 30 people made monkey sounds and pushed me,” he told DW. “There was a group of policemen near the exit, but they only looked at the racist attack and didn’t lift a finger to help me.”

He has since worried about his safety and is considering returning to his family in the Congo.

“People’s Reactions” [to President Saied’s speech] are dire, and the aggressive atmosphere has been further fueled by social media campaigns targeting sub-Saharans,” Walid bin Khalid, a member of staff at Time University and head of a newly established crisis hotline, told DW.

fear of arbitrary detention

He said that in the last seven days, many students had failed to appear for class. They were too afraid of persecution to leave their homes, or of police detaining them without charge.

There is no definite number of Sub-Saharan students detained or released, but Bin Khalid pointed out that dozens of students had requested the university’s support for their release from police custody.

“In many cases, students’ official permits are pending because they do not have the necessary documents from government offices,” Suleiman Kali, a student who began working the university’s crisis hotline this week, told DW.

He is shocked by the sudden change in public opinion. ,[Ever] Since I moved from Mali to Tunisia six years ago to study financial accounting, I have never been insulted or discriminated against,” he said. This offensive situation is completely new.”

former safe haven

Its proximity to the external border of the European Union has made Tunisia a major center for migrants. Italy’s coast is only about 150 kilometers (90 mi) away.

Tunisia relaxed visa requirements in 2015, allowing many sub-Saharan and North African migrants to move and work in the country. However, other factors have also contributed to the increase in immigration from sub-Saharan countries. Tunisia was known for its welcoming attitude, its democratic changes as a result of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, and its need for cheap labor. The authorities often turned a blind eye to workers without permits who were saving up to travel to Europe.

However, the actual number of migrants in the country is far less than the “one million” claimed by President Saied in last week’s statement.

According to the non-governmental advocacy group Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), there are about 21,000 expatriates living in the country, including students from sub-Saharan countries and workers with official residence.

FTDES spokeswoman Romdhane Ben Amor told DW she believes the president’s latest call to crack down on migrants is “the result of growing pressure by European countries to stop immigration.”

Soliman Kali and Cederic Tumb (R) work for a newly established crisis hotline for sub-Saharan students at Tunis Time University. Photo: Tarek Guizani/DW

An atmosphere of fear amid the economic crisis

The current economic crisis and political rift are fueling Tunisians’ insecurity and anger, Anthony Dvorkin, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (EFCR), told DW. “People in Tunisia are already concerned, as they have been for a long time, with the awfulness of their economic conditionWhich the President is doing very little to address.”

Tunisia’s current inflation rate is around 10%, and has been halted by much-needed funding from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). resistance by the influential Tunisian General Labor Union UGGT. Meanwhile, staple foods such as sugar and rice – which used to be subsidized by the government – ​​have become scarce.

In addition, since early February, at least 50 opposition politicians, activists and heads of the powerful UGTT have been detained as a political crackdown intensified.

Sub-Saharan migrants gather outside the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Tunis to demand protection from racist attacks |  Photo: Fethi Beled/AFP
Sub-Saharan migrants gather outside the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Tunis to demand protection from racist attacks | Photo: Fethi Beled/AFP


On Saturday, between 600 and 1,000 demonstrators took to the streets in support of Sub-Saharan Africa in Tunis. expatriates, Protesters demanded an apology from the president for his racist accusations and chanted “down with fascism, Tunisia is an African country”.

The African Union (AU), a grouping of 55 African countries, urged Tunisia to refrain from “racial hate speech”. In an open letter shared via Twitter, the AU states that they were in “deep shock and concern” at the form and substance of the speech by Tunisian authorities.

In an interview with news agency AFP on Monday, Tunisia’s newly installed foreign affairs minister, Nabil Ammar, dismissed the AU’s concerns as “baseless allegations”. Ammar said that the AU misunderstood the government’s position, “There is no question of apologising, we did not attack anyone.”

Meanwhile, Suleiman Kali, a student at Tunis Time University, has not lost faith in the Tunisian people. He is confident that attitudes towards sub-Saharan Africa will change for the better. So far he has no intention of returning to Mali. “I have no plans to leave Tunisia, and if I can find work after graduation, I can imagine settling here,” he told DW.

Author: Jennifer Hollis | Tarak Guizani

First Published: March 1, 2023

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