50.50: Analysis

Fortress Europe’s role in Tunisia’s anti-Black violence

The Tunisian president’s recent comments triggered racist violence against migrants, but there are other factors


Trigger warning: Contains references to racism and sexual assault

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Alessandra Bajec
23 March 2023, 8.17am

Migrants arrive at Tunis-Carthage International airport as they prepare to leave Tunisia on a repatriation flight, 7 March 2023

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Fethi Belaid / AFP via Getty Images

Migrants staged a protest outside the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Tunisia this week. Many had been living rough outside the nearby UN migration office following a surge in racist attacks sparked by president Kais Saied’s call last month for state resources to be used to halt the flow of migrants from other parts of Africa into the country.

In a video posted to his Facebook account on 21 February, Saied said migration was a “plot” against Tunisia’s demographic composition that would make it an “African” rather than an “Arab-Muslim” country. He claimed that unnamed parties were receiving money to settle African migrants in Tunisia.

The effect of the president’s words, which speak to prejudices that have long simmered under the surface of Tunisian society, was immediate. Overnight, Black migrants – many of whom have precarious employment or live in unregulated housing – became targets of violence at the hands of the state as well as ordinary Tunisians stressed by food shortages and a deepening economic crisis.

An estimated 21,000 Black African migrants live in the North African country, out of a population of 12 million.

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International organisations that Tunisia heavily relies on, such as the African Union, the World Bank and the IMF, have expressed alarm at the president’s comments and the waves of racially motivated violence that followed.

In response to the criticism, the Tunisian government announced measures to “improve [the] conditions of foreigners'', including more relaxed visa rules for migrants from other African countries.

Racist attacks and police arrests

Migrants sleeping rough outside the UN offices have spoken of being forcibly evicted from their homes by mobs, attacked with knives and machetes, and abused in the street. Some alleged they had been raped.

“An atmosphere of panic has taken hold in the minds of our fellow Africans,” said Smile, a representative of the Association of African Students and Trainees in Tunisia (AESAT) who declined to give his full name. AESAT spoke out days before Saied’s comments about the alleged "arbitrary arrests'' of students. Many African students and workers are reportedly unable to obtain the required paperwork due to Tunisia's complex bureaucracy.

A female student from Guinea (who requested anonymity), who moved to Tunisia six years ago, said she was sexually assaulted as she entered her apartment building in Cité El Khadra, a working-class neighbourhood in Tunis. The incident happened just three days after the president’s anti-Black statement.

Two strangers stopped her, she said, and asked “if I wanted sex. I said I would scream if they didn’t leave.” The young men “got naked and came forward, [but] I quickly stepped into my flat and closed the door”. The young woman plans to return to Guinea as soon as she can. Meanwhile, she lives in fear that her attackers know her address.

There are echoes of her story in the accounts of other students gathered in ASEAT’s Tunis office. Melanie, also from Guinea, said she was verbally abused on public transport and then punched and pushed as she alighted. “They were calling me Black bitch, saying weird things. It was really unpleasant. I didn’t go out for a week after that.”

Mahamadou Maiga, from Mali, described a “traumatic” attack by an angry mob on his home, which was set alight: “When I go out these days, I look around, as I’m fearful that anyone might stab me in the back.”

The Tunisian police have also been conducting their own crackdown on Black migrants, arresting more than 300 hundred earlier in the year, according to independent NGO Forum Tunisien pour les Droits Economiques et Sociaux (FTDES).

The Tunisian Nationalist Party, a relatively unknown political party, has also sought to take advantage of the country’s latent racial divisions, running a social media campaign to report and deport undocumented Black migrants.

Since the violence began last month, hundreds of Black African migrants – who typically include workers in agriculture, construction and the hospitality sector, higher education students, and in-transit migrants trying to get to Europe – have elected to return to their countries of origin.

On 1 March, the Guinean government brought home 50 of its citizens. Three days later, Mali and the Côte d’Ivoire repatriated 300 people. Some have paid for their own flights out of Tunisia, while hundreds of other Africans are awaiting repatriation flights.

Anti-migrant pressure from Europe

The ease with which the president’s statements triggered racist violence and police crackdowns comes as no surprise to Black people living in Tunisia – or to scholars of its racial history or Mediterranean migration patterns.

Commenting about the sexual attack on the Guinean student, Ali, a member of AESAT, said there are long-standing anti-Black attitudes among Tunisian society and the police.

“The two men assaulted her in broad daylight on her doorstep, knowing they were not taking a big risk because she is Black,” he said. “They wouldn’t have dared to do the same with a Tunisian or a white foreigner.”

He added that police are less likely to intervene for a Black woman, which in turn means that Black women are less likely to make a formal complaint if they are attacked.

Maha Abdelhamid, a Paris-based researcher working on minority issues in the Middle East and North African region, said that “colourism” is a pervasive but unacknowledged issue in Tunisia.

Black Africans are often called by belittling names, she said, and North Africa’s Arab-Muslim identity has historically been held up as a prouder heritage than its connections to the rest of Africa. “This has long fed the sentiment of superiority to Black people,” she added.

President Saied’s comments played into that historical background; other triggers are more modern, in particular Europe’s externalisation of its anti-immigration policies. Europe has pushed its border concerns back to North African countries by supporting and encouraging them to patrol against migrants crossing the Mediterranean into Europe; this forces the migrants to turn transit countries such as Tunisia into destinations.

Tunisia has long been under pressure from the European Union to curb migrant flow to Europe, said Valentina Zagaria, a Tunis-based migration specialist who spent two years doing fieldwork in Zarzis, a coastal town that is a common departure point for migrants crossing the Mediterranean.

The Tunisian Anti-Fascist Front, formed in response to Saied’s rhetoric, points to “Italian pressure” in particular. Italy’s foreign minister Antonio Tajani, while visiting Tunis in January, described the flow of migrants as "a plague for Tunisia as it is for Italy”.

"President Saied’s recent statements reinforce the message that Tunisia will remain closely aligned with Italy and the EU when it comes to migration management and border control,” said Zagaria.

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