Black People Attacked, Evicted in Tunisia after President’s Racist Statement

Demonstrators denounce racism during a march in downtown Tunis on February 25, 2023. Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

In recent weeks there have been increasing incidents of racist violence against black immigrants from other African countries living in Tunisia. While racism has been a constant feature of life for many black Africans living in Tunisia, there has been a marked spike of violence following campaigns on social media networks targeting them. Then on February 21, President Kais Saied issued a statement that used racist language and warnings of an alleged plot to replace Tunisian Arabs with black people–a parallel to racist “great replacement” rhetoric that has gained in popularity in Europe in recent decades.

In the days since Saied’s statement, violent attacks against black people have increased across the country. Videos shared on social media appear to show mobs at night attacking black people in their homes as well as forced evictions. These include alleged stabbings in Sfax on the night of February 25, according to photo and video evidence shared online by activists.

“I, along with friends from civil society, have just finished accompanying the victims of last night’s attacks on sub-Saharan Africans in various places in the city of Sfax. I did not know that the racism and brutality of some people could reach such limits. Assaults with weapons, even on children, numerous stab wounds,” lawyer Hamida Chaieb wrote on February 26 in a Facebook post accompanied by photo evidence of some of the injuries that victims sustained.

Seeking Safety Despite Evictions

Associations representing immigrant communities have urged black people to stay at home for their own safety.

“Sub-Saharan students are attacked in their homes tonight in Soukra. The police come, but as soon as they leave, the young people come back and attack the building where our students are staying and set fire in front of the exit door. Our students must be protected against these violent attacks,” AESAT, the Association of African Students and Interns in Tunisia shared with video evidence on Facebook on February 23.

A lot of people that I personally know are taking part in the racist propaganda and hate speech against us and that’s painful…I don’t feel safe at all that I can’t even leave my house,” Sebastian (not his real name), a black man from Central Africa living in Tunisia told Meshkal recently.

Yet many black African immigrants living in Tunisia have been forced to leave their houses as a result of sudden evictions. Landlords have kicked out black tenants after the National Guard spokesperson Housemeddine Jebabli told the media that authorities would arrest Tunisians housing or employing illegal migrants. That means many immigrants also stopped working and earning money, prompting associations and individuals coordinating on social media to try and raise money and buy supplies to support black Africans who have been stranded.

“It’s our landlord who wants to kick us out the door tonight,” Chris (not his real name), a black immigrant, told Meshkal Sunday February 26. Chris said that after pleading with the landlord’s husband, the husband consented eventually to giving Chris and his flatmates until early the following morning to move out. The immigrant told Meshkal he had no idea where he could stay afterwards.

“The employers told us to stop working. And without work, how will we survive?” Chris told Meshkal.

Some Ivorians who were kicked out of their houses camped outside of their embassy, according to civil society activists who shared photos online seeking urgent assistance with food, shelter and blankets. Other black immigrants camped out in front of the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration (IOM) offices in Tunis.

On Saturday February 25th, hundreds of people marched in downtown Tunis against racism, with organizers leading the march under the banner of “Abolish Fascism, Tunisia is an African Land.

Demonstrators denounce racism during a march in downtown Tunis on February 25, 2023. Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

“Seeing the anti-racism protest [on February 25] reassured me and touched me deeply,” Elizabeth (not her real name), a student in her twenties from another African country told Meshkal, but she added: “I’m constantly scared. People say that attacks only target migrants but I’m black and there’s no ‘student’ written on my forehead so I avoid going out at all.”

After the increasing attacks, many students have avoided going to classes due to the arbitrary arrests and racist attacks they faced in the period immediately after President Saied’s statement. AESAT posted a statement on February 22 noting that they received many claims of students being arrested.

“I chose to stay home after his speech as it legalized racism and violence against us. Two of my friends were assaulted the day after the statement was published in the metro station of Mohamed Al Khamis downtown. I’ve been feeling a sense of rejection ever since,” Elizabeth the student added.

President’s Hate Speech

In the Feb. 21 Presidential statement, Saied said that “hordes of irregular migrants from Africa” were leading to “violence, crimes and unacceptable practices.” In a parallel to racist “great replacement” ideas prominent in Europe, Saied suggested that a decades-long conspiracy was afoot by unnamed parties to change the “demographic composition of Tunisia…and that there are parties that received a large amount of money after 2011 for the settlement of illegal immigrants from Sub-Saharan Africa in Tunisia” in order to erase Tunisia’s Arab and Islamic identity. The rhetoric reflects the language of a party calling itself the “Tunisian Nationalist Party,” led by Houssem Toubene and Sofien Ben Sghaeir, which has been trying to drive out black Africans from Tunisia with racist, violent rhetoric since at least 2011.

“The president’s statement is horrible. He talked as if we’re not human beings. We are being perceived as a source of violence and hate. What he said is shocking. As a president he’s not meant to give such a statement,” said Sebastian.

Several other black immigrants in Tunisia told Meshkal they see the President’s statement as making the racism they normally experience a more explicit and open phenomenon.

“I was a victim of racist attacks before but it was implicit. After the President’s statement, the racist attacks became something to be proud of,” Vicky (not her real name), a black student from another African country said.

“People do it openly now,” another student chimed in.

Demonstrators denounce racism during a march in downtown Tunis on February 25, 2023. Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

There have also been mass arrests of African immigrants in recent days, with authorities and supporters claiming they are for visa overstays. Many commentators noted that authorities are not targeting rich, European and American immigrants in La Marsa and other upscale neighborhoods with the same enforcement, even though visa overstay issues are common among this demographic as well. Authorities also often indefinitely delay granting residence permits to black migrants who apply, some immigrants recounted to Meshkal. And when migrants overstay for too long, the associated fines required by passport control upon exiting the country become too costly for some. Sebastian recounted the excessive administrative burdens that force many black migrants into an “illegal” migration status:

“Some of us actually want to go home but because of the penalties that we have to pay for not renewing our residence card, we are forced to stay. We fail to renew our residence card because sometimes it feels that we’re stuck in a vicious circle. Each time we go, they ask us to come again another time, over and over again. At some point it drains us,” Sebastian said. “We spend so much money, time and energy each time we go. It is mentally draining to repeat the same task over and over again in vain. We eventually end up giving up and live in hope of not ending up caught by the police. Some of us are forced to stay here years after finishing their studies, working, whatever just to save enough money to pay for the penalties and finally go back to their families.”

As for himself, Sebastian explained that Covid-19 only increased the administrative delays with renewing his residency in Tunisia. He said that if there were an amnesty for the visa overstay exit fees that he can’t afford, he would leave Tunisia immediately.

“I am scared because I finished my studies a while ago and didn’t get to renew my residence card because of Covid…I’m just waiting until my financial status is better. If tomorrow the government announces that the penalties are all canceled, I’ll literally leave in no time,” he told Meshkal.

Black Tunisians Attacked

Black Tunisians have also been targeted by racist attacks in recent days.

“I was assaulted by people in the streets multiple times specifically after the [President’s] statement,” Nibras Mjannah, a 26-year-old black Tunisian told Meshkal on the sidelines of the anti-racism protest in Tunis on Saturday. “I am not feeling safe in my country. I wholeheartedly love my country, but its people are scaring me.”

“I was terrified to leave the house because of my color. People judge based on color. I am automatically assumed to be a Sub-Saharan African because of my blackness…whenever I go out I hear comments like ‘Why are you still here?’ or ‘Get out [dégage],” she added.

In response to these attacks, some black Tunisians launched a campaign on social media sharing selfies with their Tunisian national ID cards and passports with the hashtags: “My official documents on me, just in case;” “We support migrants”, and “African and Tunisian.”

Fatma Al Zahra, a 26 year-old feminist, human rights activist and president of the association DAMJ, is another Tunisian who has been attacked in recent days because of her skin color.

“Yesterday, I was attacked by a woman in the street assuming I was a Sub-Saharan African, and when I insisted that I’m Tunisian and even if I were not she has no rights to attack people based on their skin color, instead of apologizing she continued saying: ‘I don’t care, you should be deported with them.’ I tried asking for help from passengers but nobody answered,” Fatma Al Zahra recounted to Meshkal on the sidelines of the anti-racism protest in Tunis on February 25.

“People keep glowering at me and I can feel the silent tension in their eyes. It frightens me to think that that tension can at any time turn to violence,” she said, adding that she still feels more secure than non-Tunisian black immigrants who “have no access to security or the basic human rights in here that protect their dignity.”

“I hope this circle of violence ends. We should all unite as we’re all Africans,” she added.

Demonstrators denounce racism during a march in downtown Tunis on February 25, 2023. Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

Italian Angle?

The increasing crackdown by the Tunisian State on black African migrants who are deemed “illegal” reflects a strict anti-immigrant policy that Europe has instituted in recent decades. Because of this, many African migrants hoping to reach Europe have turned to crossing the Mediterranean Sea by ship, a dangerous trip that has seen more than 26,000 people go missing since 2014 according to the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration (IOM). Many Tunisians have also died making this journey after they were denied European visas. Italy and Greece have been widely criticized by human rights organizations for prosecuting organizations and individuals who try to save migrants drowning at sea.

As racist, anti-immigrant politicians have continued to gain more power in Europe, European officials have attempted to work with Tunisia more closely on policing migrants before they even leave African shores. As early as 2017 there were reports that Tunisia was being urged to set up camps to screen asylum seekers in Europe, something then Prime Minister Youssef Chahed rejected. Yet in 2017 the European Border and Coast Guard Agency Frontex launched a program funded by the European Union that included Tunisia in its attempt to increase information sharing about migrants. In 2022, European Union funding to Tunisia through the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa—which in 2021 and 2022 amounted annually to almost 100 million Euros—included in its action plan pledges to “support and accompany Tunisia in addressing all of its complex mixed migration challenges”, including the prevention of irregular departures from Tunisia, and, according to Statewatch which reviewed the leaked document, “managing more migrant and asylum seekers within the state” i.e within Tunisia.

The latest statement by Saied comes amid increasing focus by Italian officials on cooperation with Tunisia on migration. In early February, the Italian ambassador to Tunisia Fabrizio Saggio met with Defense Minister Imed Memmiche and discussed Italian assistance to Tunisia’s military to maintain security in the Mediterranean. In January, Italy’s Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani and Italy’s Interior Minister visited Tunis and met with President Kais Saied and other top Tunisian officials. On February 22, one day after Saied’s racist statement, Tajani tweeted that he had had a call with IMF director Kristalina Georgieva about Tunisia’s crisis. Tunisia has been trying to negotiate a new loan deal with the IMF for years, and in the absence of a deal its sovereign credit ratings have plummeted, impacting the country’s ability to import basic goods like wheat. On February 27, state news agency TAP reported that Tajani called his Tunisian counterpart Nabil Ammar and “informed him of the outcome of his dealings with senior officials of the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and some Western countries to mobilize financial support for Tunisia.”

Demonstrators denounce racism during a march in downtown Tunis on February 25, 2023. Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

While Italian-Tunisian relations may be growing closer, and France’s far-right politician Eric Zemmour tweeted approval of President Saied’s statement, officials from several other African countries have released statements in the last week expressing concern about the violent campaign against black Africans in Tunisia. On February 24, the African Union’s Commission’s Chairperson released a statement that “condemns the shocking statement issued by Tunisian authorities targeting fellow Africans” and called on all countries to “refrain from racialised hate speech that could bring people to harm, and prioritize their safety and human rights.”


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