Sub-Saharans are no longer welcome in Tunisia, by Thierry Brésillon (Le Monde diplomatique

Not welcome here: sub-Saharan migrant camped out in front of the Côte d’Ivoire embassy, Tunis, 28 February 2023

Fethi Belaid · AFP · Getty

Amid growing tensions between Tunisians and sub-Saharan immigrants, President Kais Saied told a National Security Council meeting on 21 February that urgent action was needed to stem the flow of (sub-Saharan) migrants into the country. Published on the president’s Facebook page, his explosive remarks set out a Tunisian version of the ‘great replacement theory’ (1), describing a ‘criminal arrangement prepared since the beginning of the century to change the demographic composition of Tunisia’, in which certain parties ‘received a large amount of money after 2011 for the settlement of illegal immigrants from [sub-Saharan] Africa in Tunisia’, so that it would become ‘only an African country and not belong to the Arab and Islamic nations’ (2).

With the police already cracking down on irregular migrants, the National Guard announced on 22 February a campaign targeting those who house or employ them. Over the next few days, landlords evicted thousands of sub-Saharan migrants, often at night and without notice. Many had to leave their possessions behind and lost their deposits. In some cases, neighbours helped with the evictions, attacking the migrants, destroying their possessions and stealing their savings; and sometimes bands of ‘concerned citizens’ supported or even pre-empted police operations.

For several weeks, sub-Saharans stayed indoors for fear of being arrested or attacked, relying on support from local mutual aid groups for food. The embassies of Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea-Conakry, Senegal and Mali arranged flights to repatriate any nationals wanting to leave. It was also a way of responding to upset caused at home by Saied’s remarks, which were likewise condemned by African Union Commission chair Moussa Faki Mahamat (3).

Saied has insisted his remarks were maliciously misinterpreted: he was only talking about irregular migrants, who are vulnerable to exploitation by local employers and people smugglers; Tunisia would never deny being part of Africa. Foreign minister Nabil Ammar assured sub-Saharan countries and international organisations that Tunisia was committed to protecting human rights. But the Tunisian authorities are still talking of a coordinated ‘campaign’ against the country, and refusing to explicitly condemn racist attacks – they only set up a free helpline for victims of abuse on 7 March – and above all refusing to acknowledge that calling migration part of a criminal arrangement is a problem.

Fascist-inspired sentiments

The criminal arrangement theory is not Saied’s. It’s been around in Tunisia for months and was first articulated by the tiny Tunisian Nationalist Party (TNP), founded by Sofien Ben Sghaier and Houssem Touben in 2018. The TNP uses traditional fascist rhetoric – hatred of democracy, justification of war and violence against political opponents as a way of mobilising national energy – in order to claim that Tunisia is undergoing ‘sub-Saharan colonisation’ funded by the European Union to help keep migrants inside Africa, and that human rights organisations are forcing the Tunisian government to adopt pro-migrant policies.

Thanks to its growing audience (initially built up on social media), the TNP has been able to force a public debate based on the claim that there are some 700,000 sub-Saharan Africans in Tunisia. This is clearly wrong: Tunisia’s National Institute of Statistics reports their numbers rose from just 7,000 in 2010 to 21,000 in 2021, and the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs suggests a figure of 57,000 in 2019.

Uncontrolled arrivals will invert Tunisia’s demographic balance … given arrival and settlement estimates of between 1.2 to 1.7 million in five years

Tawfik Bourgou

Such exaggeration is not limited to café politics. On 2 January a former minister for state property, Mabrouk Korchid, said in a radio broadcast, ‘They are bringing Africans to Tunisia to get married and change the makeup of the Tunisian people’. And on 15 February Tawfik Bourgou, a Tunisian political scientist at the University of Lyon III, wrote that ‘the massive, uncontrolled arrivals are starting to look like a flood which, within five years at most, will invert Tunisia’s demographic balance … given estimated arrival and settlement figures of between 1.2 and 1.7 million in five years’ (4).

To support its theory, the TNP uses old film footage with controversial figures from the Afrocentrist movement proclaiming, ‘Africa has always been Black. [The Maghrebis] can go home to Saudi Arabia’ and ‘Tunisia is Black, Morocco is Black, Libya is Black. We call on our people to reconquer their territory.’ This rhetoric, which was in fact only voiced by a minority at the time, was inspired by a questionable interpretation of the writings of the Senegalese writer and politician Cheikh Anta Diop, and was largely a reaction to racism in the Maghreb (5).

Racist insults and stone-throwing

Black-Arab relations in the Maghreb countries are still marked by memories of slavery (though some Berber populations from southern parts of North Africa are also very dark-skinned). The old perception of Black Africans as ‘uncivilised’ and in need of ‘domestication’ – meaning subjugation – is still evident in common insults such as kahloush (as pejorative as ‘negro’) or oussif (‘slave’). Not to mention the stone-throwing and spitting, and the number of assaults, rapes and murders that go unsolved when the victims are Black. According to one victim of a gang rape, ‘The police said “How dare you complain about Tunisians in their own country!” and told me to go away.’ Tunisia passed a law criminalising racial discrimination in 2018, but it will take a lot more than that to change attitudes.

It was in this atmosphere that Saied chose to adopt the TNP’s rhetoric (the party had sent him a report full of inflammatory allegations just a few weeks earlier). In so doing, he gave credence to the fantasies of a tiny Afrocentrist group that would like to purge the Maghreb of its Arabness, and, above all, gave official backing to a conspiracist interpretation of a genuine change in the reality of migration in Tunisia.

In the 1990s Tunisia, which once had net emigration, became, due to its proximity to the Italian island of Lampedusa, a transit country for sub-Saharan migrants heading to Europe. Now it has net immigration. This is a result partly of the African Development Bank relocating to Tunis in 2003, during the political crisis in Côte d’Ivoire, ‘which was the starting point for immigration from African countries, mainly Côte d’Ivoire, through networks established in Tunis’ (6); and partly of the decision, under former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, to attract students from Africa’s emerging middle classes to Tunisia’s then booming private universities.

Dumping migrants in the Sahara

More recently, the harsh conditions in migrant detention centres in Libya, run by militias (7), and the Algerian authorities’ practice of dumping migrants in the Sahara desert have diverted clandestine migrants from West Africa and the Sahel towards Tunisia instead. Migrants picked up at sea are now brought ashore in Tunisia, even if they originally set off from Libya. In just a few years, the demography of some neighbourhoods of Tunis and Sfax (an industrial city conveniently close to ocean currents flowing towards Lampedusa) has been transformed.

The immigration status of the vast majority of sub-Saharans in Tunisia is irregular. Even those eligible for a visa find it hard to obtain one because of bureaucracy. Those who overstay their visa must pay a fine of 20 dinars (around $6.50) per week. The accumulated debt, which can run into thousands of dinars, makes Tunisia feel like an open prison. To earn money for their return home or onward journey to Europe, they go into service industries – construction, hospitality, domestic service – where they are paid on average 30% less than Tunisians. Harsh living conditions make them more likely to become involved in crime (unregulated prostitution, drug trafficking), which exposes them to xenophobia all the more.

The main objective for these sub-Saharan migrants is still to cross the Mediterranean. In 2022 they accounted for half of the 38,000 people picked up in small boats off the coast of Tunisia. The people-trafficking industry is dominated by well-tested networks based notably in Sfax, which handle everything from boatbuilding to obtaining information from the police to avoid interception. They are thought to be making over a million dollars a month.

Meanwhile, the EU has entrusted the management of its southern border to the Maghreb countries. Tunisia, which has been moving towards democracy since 2011 and is more socially acceptable than Libya and more cooperative than Algeria, is the ideal partner for this. Cooperation with the EU’s migration policy is now an explicit condition for economic aid. While the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Organisation for Migration respectively handle refugee processing and ‘voluntary’ repatriations, EU member states (Italy in particular) are steadily giving more funding to Tunisia to strengthen coordination on maritime border surveillance.

However, Romdhane Ben Amor, spokesman for the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, believes that ‘these measures are not enough for the Italians.’ With the aim of slowing the influx of migrants, Rome is urging the Tunisian authorities to increase the pressure on sub-Saharan migrants. The easiest way to do that is to create a climate of fear that will encourage those already here to leave and dissuade others from coming.’ On 18 January, around a month before the police crackdown on irregular migrants began, Italy’s foreign minister Antonio Tajani and interior minister Matteo Piantedosi were in Tunis to talk about combatting clandestine migration. Saied’s 21 February remarks were a response to public opinion, as much in Italy and across the EU as in Tunisia.

With Tunisia on the verge of defaulting on its debt, Giorgia Meloni’s government has agreed to plead its case with international lenders. That will be a tall order: the International Monetary Fund has made its $1.9bn rescue package over four years conditional on austerity, but on 6 April Saied denounced this as ‘foreign diktats that will lead to more poverty’.

Meanwhile, Tunisia’s diplomats are trying to soften the impact of Saied’s remarks about migrants on relations with sub-Saharan African countries. On 5 March the government announced measures to make it easier for sub-Saharans to regularise their immigration status if they qualify for a visa (students in particular) and reduced penalties for overstaying. But the basic aim is still to keep would-be immigrants out.

Saied’s posturing prevents Tunisians from looking beyond the simplistic choice between a security-based approach to migration (migrants are dangerous) and one based on morality (racism is bad), and formulating their own policy. This needs to be aligned with the rest of the continent and to reflect the new reality of migration in Africa. Sub-Saharans are no longer welcome in Tunisia, by Thierry Brésillon (Le Monde diplomatique

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