Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Opinion

Migrant solidarity in Tunisia offers hope after racist attacks

Migrants and refugees in Tunisia were attacked after the president gave a racist speech. Grassroots movements upped their support in response

Peter Rees Fatma Raach Souhayel Weslety Rachel Ibreck
27 April 2023, 5.00am

Migrants protest outside UNHCR's headquarters in Tunisia in March 2023


Hasan Mrad/DeFodi Images/Getty Images. All rights reserved

It’s dangerous to be a migrant in Tunisia right now.

The country’s president, Kais Saied, recently claimed in a high-profile speech that “hordes” of migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa were part of a “criminal enterprise … aimed at changing the demographic composition of Tunisia” and erasing its “Arab-Muslim” heritage. Just this month the police evicted dozens of migrants who had set up camp outside the UNHCR building to protest their treatment. And the possibility of illegal pushbacks and deadly shipwrecks lies in wait for anybody who, escaping violence and precarity, decides to try their luck on the Mediterranean.

Migrants in Tunisia aren’t the only ones caught up in the current global attack on the right to seek asylum. The UK government is pursing what is essentially “an asylum ban,” the US government is in the middle of a border crackdown, and EU leaders are doing all they can to reinforce “Fortress Europe.” But their predicament highlights how, for refugees, the situation is quickly becoming ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’. They face inhumane and counterproductive policies both where they are and wherever they are trying to get to.

Migrants have not given up though. Instead, their response and that of their allies has been resistance and solidarity. It gives us hope.

Migrants as a scapegoat for a failing state

While Saied did not invent anti-black racism in Tunisia, these days he is blatantly stoking it for political advantage. Following his speech some Tunisians went out and assaulted or robbed migrants and refugees. Others evicted them from their homes or terminated their jobs. Saied denied he was racist in the aftermath and promised legal consequences for perpetrators. But he continued to insist that migration to Tunisia was a “plot”, despite the fact that more than 270,000 Tunisians have left since 2010 and less than 60,000 refugees and migrants from outside Tunisia have stayed.

The president’s hate speech also “sow[ed] confusion and panic” abroad, as European leaders see Tunisia as a bulwark against Sub-Saharan and North African migrants. The Italian government reacted by asking the International Monetary Fund to release a $1.9 billion loan to tackle “instability”, while the EU’s foreign policy chief warned that if Tunisia “collapses … new flows of migrants will come to Europe”.

Solidarity is far from universal, but some Tunisians have become famous for it.

The prospect of “collapse” isn’t just rhetoric. Tunisia’s crisis is multifaceted, with an economy in freefall and political repression sharply rising. The EU parliament has rightly condemned the detentions of political opponents as well as attacks on migrants. Its policies, however, seek to help Tunisia contain migrants and refugees without offering much in return. Human rights are not a meaningful part of Tunisia’s current “migration partnerships”, and the EU does not do enough to help the country “uphold its human rights obligations towards its own citizens and the migrants and refugees it hosts”.

With this perfect storm, the number of Tunisian and Sub-Saharans refugees trying to flee (and the number of shipwrecks) will surely only increase.

The need for mobility

Attacks on Sub-Saharan migrants are in stark contradiction with Tunisia’s long heritage of mobility. For generations, the Tunisian economy has depended on circular migration to Europe, especially France and Italy. During the 2011 revolution, young people struggled for freedom and the right to work, not only by protesting but also by migrating. Thousands left for Italy by boat in the months following the fall of Ben Ali, the former president.

When the Libyan civil war broke out, Tunisians opened the border and spontaneously “made space” in their homes for some half a million Libyan refugees. Racism surfaced then, as it has now. Tunisian gangs and soldiers systematically held back black Africans fleeing from Libya, later confining them to refugee camps near the border.

Solidarity is far from universal. But some Tunisians have become famous for it. Over the years since the revolution, the fishermen of Zarzis have rescued countless refugees and migrants from the Mediterranean, regardless of their ethnicity or nationality. Too often, they have searched for and discovered the bodies of migrants. One has even created a cemetery where he buries "strangers" in dignity with his own hands.

The fishermen are among many Tunisians who privilege human life above state sovereignty.

For them, it’s not smugglers or migrants who are criminals. It’s governments and the EU. They know from experience that “borders and visas [are] … a racist system marginalising people in the south and globally”, as one activist told us.

Grassroots solidarity

The recent wave of violence against refugees and migrants was documented and condemned by human rights organisations, including Amnesty International and Avocats sans Frontières, the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights and Terre d’Asile.

Yet the UNHCR remained silent, prompting refugees to stage a long sit-in outside their office in Tunis demanding protection. The refugees were violently evicted by the police in April and their protests escalated. At this point UNHCR issued a statement condemning vulnerable refugees that they are mandated to protect. They failed to mention Saied’s speech or the violence that followed.

Events in Tunisia encourage us to look to grassroots actors for moral leadership and humanitarian support. It seems people on the move must increasingly depend upon assistance and solidarity from local associations, social movements and ordinary people.

Human rights are not just laws and institutions. They are also practices.

The refugee protesters at UNHCR told us that small groups of locals regularly brought them food, clothes and money. One woman even collected their phones every morning and returned them fully charged later. Without her, the demonstrators said, they would not be able to contact their relatives or document their struggles. Having lost their homes, facing harassment from the police and with their UNHCR cards no longer working, they were “demanding evacuation from Tunisia” because it is “not a safe country for black-skinned people.”

Hundreds of people protested against racism and the persecution of migrants in Tunis within days of the president’s speech. A week later, 3,000 people joined a rally organised by the Tunisian General Labour Union demanding an end to the arrests and condemning the attacks on migrants.

Among the protestors were members of the Tunisian Association for Justice and Legality (Damj), an NGO working on LGBTQI+ rights. They carried signs including “Black queer lives matter” and “Black trans lives matter.” Later, Damj declared “a queer state of emergency” and issued a statement against the police raids and the arrest of 36 Sub-Saharan asylum seekers from the queer community.

Through such actions, people on the move are building local and transnational alliances of solidarity, including with the Refugees in Libya movement and solidarity organisations across Europe. These groups have amplified the demands of black Africans in Tunisia across their social media networks and by organising protests.

Against a global backdrop of democratic backsliding, refugees, migrants, and their allies remind us that human rights are not just laws and institutions. They are also practices. Solidarity with migrants and refugees in Tunisia shows how we can create cultures of care and build alternative communities within and across borders. This, more than ever, is urgently needed.

The Beyond Slavery Newsletter Receive a round-up of new content straight to your inbox Sign up now


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData