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Another migrant crisis: Tunisia’s descent into racism

Is Europe’s policy on migration fuelling growing violence in Tunisia against black immigrants?

People shout slogans during a protest against Tunisian President Kais Saied after his statement against African migrants, saying their presence was a source of ''violence and crimes'' in Tunis, Tunisia. Photo: Yassine Mahjoub/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

While Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman have been finalising their hardened stance against asylum seekers on small boats, another set of refugees is suffering. Brutal racist violence has swept Tunisia in the last few days, as gangs of predominantly young men have ransacked the homes of the country’s undocumented black migrants, throwing families out onto the street and burning their belongings. 

However, while the violence may have been triggered by the words of Tunisia’s president, Kais Saied – never a man to let a good conspiracy theory pass him by – many are already looking to the EU’s policy of externalising its migration problems to vulnerable countries on its border. In this case, Tunisia. 

Parroting the Great Replacement Theory, Saied was clear. “The undeclared goal of the successive waves of illegal immigration is to consider Tunisia a purely African country that has no affiliation to the Arab and Islamic nations,” he told his security council on February 21, stressing the need to “put an end to this phenomenon quickly, especially as the uncontrolled immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa continue with violence [and] unacceptable crimes.”

Expressing surprise over the international response to the president’s comments has not been enough to prevent Tunisia being suspended from its partnership with the World Bank and the deferment of a meeting with the African Union. However, for many of those living in Tunisia, the damage has been more immediate.  

Few have any illusions about where to look when attributing blame for the violent racist purges that have swept Tunisia. It lies with an increasingly idiosyncratic president and a society that has never reckoned with its own prejudice. However, many are also beginning to look wider, to Europe, the international community and its longstanding policy of outsourcing migration policy to countries ill-equipped to cope.  

Sheltering in the lee of a rough black tarpaulin tent, a young refugee from Sierra Leone spoke for the hundreds displaced since Saied’s speech. “We came here for a good life, a good future and then to go back to our country,” he said, from a narrow road near the International Organisation Building in Tunis, its rough tents now straining to accommodate the human consequences of the president’s comments. “But this kind of situation right now, they are taking our property, our monies, they are stabbing our friends,” he said. 

Another chimed in: “This is all since the president’s speech. Now the Tunisian people are after us. They tried to break down my door and threatened me with a machete. They wanted to rape the women.”

Tunisia is hardly new to the subject of irregular migration, being one of the key contributors to arrivals in Europe. Last year, around 15,000 Tunisians are thought to have entered Europe clandestinely as part of a visa-free deal with Serbia. Tunisians could fly to Serbia, before heading to border camps and then crossing into Europe at night. A further 18,000 undocumented Tunisians are also estimated to have crossed the Mediterranean into Italy in small boats. 

Taken on its own, Tunisian migration has already pushed Italy’s reception centres to breaking point. While efforts to push back on Tunisian migration reach across the continent, Italy sits unambiguously at the fore. Since 2017, the country has invested around €75m (£66.5m) in the country’s migration management projects, among them the Tunisian Coast Guard, which is trained, equipped and financed by the European Union. 

Nevertheless, as the EU, and Italy specifically, have partnered with Libya’s Coast Guard, closing one of the traditional routes from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe, increasing numbers of black migrants have been leaving from Tunisia, hitching rides on the regular departures to Europe. Inevitably, as those boats fall foul of the European maritime surveillance systems with which the Tunisian Coast Guard is equipped, black migrants find themselves returned to their departure points and deposited among the thousands of others for whom Tunisia has been an end in itself. 

However, thanks to an opaque bureaucracy, where establishing legal residency within the three months allowed is close to impossible, the majority now sit marooned in Tunisia without documents, as the fines for leaving to renew their visa grow by the week. 

In November, as part of what seems a longer-term strategy, the EU Commission recommended strengthening Tunisia’s processes for receiving migrants and refugees, increasing their numbers within the country, irrespective of the country’s social or economic capacity to handle them. 

That strain looks to have been growing for some time. Earlier this month, a report by the Civil Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (CMRCC) said that returning interceptions to Tunisia was a “dangerous, illegal, and inhumane policy”. Continuing, the report stated, “Tunisia cannot be considered a safe place for disembarkation under any circumstances.”

The degree to which Saied may have been specifically referencing European strategies in his February speech is unclear. However, when he referred to “a criminal arrangement that has been prepared since the beginning of this century to change the demographic composition of Tunisia,” he left little to the imagination. He continued: “There are parties that received huge sums of money after 2011 in order to settle irregular migrants from sub-Saharan Africa in Tunisia.” 

The novice politician has consistently referred to foreign plots to assassinate him, or the “terrorists” and “traitors” who oppose and criticise him as, all the while, the economy tanks and the IMF loan the country sorely needs remains ever-distant. 

Whatever his motivations were, the outcome was the same. A Nigerian man who had been living in one of the working-class neighbourhoods that skirt Tunis said: “I was chased out of my house.” Speaking from outside the offices of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) where, along with around 100 displaced black migrants, he had taken shelter in a camp, he went on: “People from all over Tunis have been attacked. They have given us all kinds of wounds. The landlord came up and knocked on the door and said black Africans aren’t allowed to live here.”

Walking around one of the more down-at-heel corners in the otherwise comfortable suburbs of La Soukra, it’s hard to avoid the suspicion of the country’s growing black population, fuelled by a social media campaign by the country’s hitherto unknown Parti Nationaliste Tunisien

Mohamed Ali, an unemployed man, voices an opinion that wouldn’t be out of place at a Conservative Party rally. He has no problem with migrants, he says, it’s the undocumented ones he objects to. “We treat them the same way as Italians treat us when we arrive in Europe,” he told a translator.

Elsewhere, in a nearby market, another man also named Mohamed repeats one of the accounts he has heard about black migrants within the neighbourhood. “A woman from Côte d’Ivoire was raped by a man from Mali,” he tells a translator, looking up from his tabouna – traditional bread. “Her husband had to look on as the Malian did it then threw her from a window.” Asked where that was reported, he answers: “They live nearby. Everyone knows this.”  Similarly lurid stories of rape and murder abound throughout the neighbourhood. Online, there is a popular rumour that black Africans eat cats. 

Racism isn’t new in Tunisia, just as it isn’t new to Europe. In January Italy’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister, Antonio Tajani, told Saied: “Tunisia and Italy are both victims of the phenomenon of illegal migration. We need to solve the issue from the roots and look at it through African lenses, not European ones.” It’s uncertain if he knew how far the consequences of his words might reach. 

In recent weeks, as international outrage gathered around the scale of the violence meted out to Tunisia’s black migrants, including a stinging rebuke from the African Union, the readout of a telephone call between Tajani and Tunisia’s foreign minister, Nabil Ammar, made no mention of the brutality. According to the readout, Tajani only spoke of “his country’s keenness and political will to support Tunisia economically and support the path of its democratic transition”, and the help Italy could offer in helping Tunisia to secure the IMF loan. 

However, opposition within Tunisia is forming. After years of silence following Saied’s power grab of two years ago, Tunisia’s young and progressive activists have returned to the streets, rallying under the banner of the Front Antifasciste and marching in the capital to denounce the president’s views.

“We’re angry, and we’ll remain angry,” said Henda Chennaoui, one of the Front’s founders. “The responsibility for this is the state, not the individuals. I know my people, I know Tunisians. This racist discourse is the result of years of a lack of education and culture. We cannot blame them. We blame every public figure who repeats this hateful racist speech,” she said. 

Right now, few in Tunisia are looking across the Mediterranean to Europe and Italy when allocating blame. That reckoning lies ahead. 

However, little of this matters to the Ivorian woman waiting patiently outside her embassy. She just wants to go home. “I don’t feel safe because of my skin colour,” she tells a translator. Asked what she will remember from Tunisia, she pauses. A man passing behind her answers, “the racism”.

Simon Speakman Cordall is a freelance journalist based in Tunisia

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