Xenophobia grows amidst raids and repeated attacks on sub-Saharan Africans in Tunisia

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Tunisian law enforcement has launched a wave of repression against the country’s sub-Saharan African population, carrying out random identity checks and sometimes violently arresting them, leaving their children abandoned and offering no access to any kind of legal support. Xenophobic and racist sentiments have also been circulating widely on Tunisian social media, a toxic climate that recent statements by the Tunisian president only exacerbated.

Tunisian police in a number of cities carried out a campaign against the migrant community, arresting and detaining around 300 people from sub-Saharan Africa, including women and children, between February 14 and 16.

Police in a western suburb of Tunis arrested the staff working at a daycare run by an Ivorian couple… as well as a number of parents who had come to pick up their children on February 16. The adults were brought to the police station, apparently so that authorities could check their papers, according to the Tunis-based media outlet Radio Libre Francophone.

Some of the parents who were arrested managed to get their small children to friends or family. Other children were taken into the care of staff with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. However, many of the children were taken from their parents and placed into a foster centre in a Tunis suburb.





Fuel was added to the fire when Tunisian president Kaïs Saïed said that sub-Saharan migrants were “a source of crime and delinquency” during a meeting with the National Security Council on February 21.

‘It’s really, really difficult to get a residency permit for Tunisia’

Melvin (not his real name) works with an association in Tunis. He says that it is difficult and costly to get a residency permit in Tunisia.

No one wants to stay in the country illegally but it is very, very hard to get a residency permit in Tunisia [Editor’s note: because of complex administrative procedures, about 60% of interns and students from sub-Saharan Africa don’t have a valid residency permit].

I know a lot of students who don’t have residency permits, even if they go to expensive private universities that cost more than 3,000 euros a year.

When you arrive in Tunisia, you are allowed to stay in the country for three months. After that, you have to pay 80 dinars [about 24 euros] for each month that you stay beyond that. So many sub-Saharan migrants live in poverty. So how can they pay these fees, not to mention other expenses?

Most of the community expected [the president to make] calming statements but what was said was shocking. We were expecting him to announce mass regularisation for the migrant community, so they could go home [Editor’s note: undocumented migrants who want to leave Tunisia cannot do so without paying fines for overstaying their visas].

And so many migrants accumulate these penalties because they can’t get their residency permit. And so they prefer to try their luck crossing the Mediterranean.

@birdmansacko ♬ son original – Birdman Sacko

This is a video of a Guinean migrant filmed at the port in Sfax, a city in Eastern Tunisia. The person filming says that he and his friend hope to arrive safe and sound in Italy or in France.

Police arrested about thirty people from sub-Saharan Africa in the northeastern peninsula of Cap Bon on February 20 as part of what the government has claimed is a national security campaign to verify the papers of people from this migrant community, according to radio Mosaïque FM. This wave of repression continued when, on the morning of February 22, 35 people suspected of irregular immigration status were arrested and detained in Kasserine.

Even though Tunisia is often considered as just a transitory stop on the migration route from Africa to Europe, about 21,466 people from sub-Saharan live there, according to the Tunisian National Institute of Statistics. However, many other groups, including NGOs who work with migrants, believe the number is actually much higher.

‘We don’t have any news about the mothers. Did they go before a judge? Why were they arrested?’

Daoud (not his real name) is originally from sub-Saharan Africa, though we are keeping his name and his country of origin anonymous to protect his identity. He has been living in Sfax, the economic capital of Tunisia, for several years but has friends living in Tunis.

He was terrified when he heard that two of his female friends, who are related and both have small children, went out to get groceries on February 14 and never came back. Afraid, Daoud called another friend living in the same Tunis neighbourhood, only to get no response.

Considering the sickening situation in Tunis and especially in the neighborhood where they were living, I wanted to make sure they were safe. I contacted dozens of people who might know where [my three friends] were. Finally, I talked to someone on the morning of February 15 who said that they had all been detained. The two women were taken to Raoued and detained there. Same for my friend, who was arrested in a café.

The two women are both mothers with tiny children. When the mothers were arrested, their daughters, aged just one and two years old, were left at home alone, locked in the apartment where they were all living. It is inhumane to leave children like that.

A family from the Ivory Coast, including two mothers (wearing red), were arrested on February 14 and detained in Raoued, a Tunis suburb. Photo sent by our Observer, “Daoud”

When Daoud realized that the babies were home alone, locked in the flat, he did everything he could to save them, even though he was miles away. Along with assistance from the landlord, a friend managed to break a window and get into the flat.

We went to the police station to plead for the mothers to be released but the Ariana tribunal said that the two women needed to pay their debts because both of them had irregular status. Finally, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees took over care of the baby girls.

Right now, we still have no news of the mothers. Did they go before a judge? Why were they arrested?

There have been other cases where parents have had to get a lawyer in order to regain custody of children placed in detention. We’ve also heard of other children being placed in a foster centre without access to their parents.

A number of Tunisian organisations published a joint statement, denouncing the campaign of abusive arrests as well as comments made by officials that they considered “dangerous and inciting hate towards migrants from sub-Saharan Africa”, as well as the random identity checks and lack of access to legal support. The associations also called on the authorities to release all of the people who had been arrested and put an end to these “systematic arbitrary arrests”.

In this toxic climate perpetuated by the authorities, many members of the Tunisian public have felt emboldened to intimidate or even assault people from sub-Saharan Africa.

This woman from sub-Saharan Africa was attacked and left with a bleeding injury to the head on February 14 in a neighbourhood in the town of Sfax. Associations of Ivorians in Tunisia said that she was attacked by the young men you see in this video.
This woman from sub-Saharan Africa was attacked and left with a bleeding injury to the head on February 14 in a neighbourhood in the town of Sfax. Associations of Ivorians in Tunisia said that she was attacked by the young men you see in this video. Screengrab/ Maghreb Ivoire TV

‘When police see someone is from sub-Saharan Africa, then that is enough for them to be arrested in the street or on public transport or even at work’

Daoud continued:

In the neighborhoods where people from sub-Saharan Africa live, there are often groups of young Tunisians who gather outside of the buildings where migrants live. I advised a young woman I know to move for her safety.

When police see someone is from sub-Saharan Africa, then that is enough for them to be arrested in the street or on public transport or even at work.

In fact, it is almost impossible for people to even leave Tunis without having their papers checked.

‘I’ve noticed a palpable fear of Black people in Tunisia’

Moreover, the Tunisian Nationalist Party (Parti nationaliste tunisien), which has been in existence since 2018 has been carrying out a campaign to “raise awareness” about what they call the “sub-Saharan invasion” into certain neighbourhoods in Tunis and Sfax.

These Facebook posts call on Tunisians to refrain from renting to people from sub-Saharan Africa or hiring them. In the comments section, there are lots of xenophobic and racist comments as well as comments from sympathisers to the cause who say they want to help apply this locally.
These Facebook posts call on Tunisians to refrain from renting to people from sub-Saharan Africa or hiring them. In the comments section, there are lots of xenophobic and racist comments as well as comments from sympathisers to the cause who say they want to help apply this locally. Observers

The party also draws from the “great replacement theory“, championed by the extreme right in both Europe and the United States.

A petition launched by the Tunisian Nationalist Party has collected nearly a thousand signatures. The petition demands the expulsion of undocumented migrants, the repeal of a law related to the fight against racial discrimination, as well as a requirement for all sub-Saharans to have a visa to enter Tunisia.
A petition launched by the Tunisian Nationalist Party has collected nearly a thousand signatures. The petition demands the expulsion of undocumented migrants, the repeal of a law related to the fight against racial discrimination, as well as a requirement for all sub-Saharans to have a visa to enter Tunisia. Tunisian Nationalist Party

Daoud continued:

This party’s campaign to “raise awareness” has contributed to the hatred towards people from sub-Saharan Africa. Members of the party go to cafés, metro stations or to “louages” [Editor’s note: shared taxis for inter-urban transport] to “raise awareness”, essentially spreading hate about people from sub-Saharan Africa. I understand the country is experiencing a difficult economic period but it isn’t the presence of sub-Saharans in Tunisia that has caused that.

They have a racist ideology. This is dangerous because political figures like the president indirectly encourage violence, which could lead to actual acts. I’ve noticed a palpable fear of Black people in Tunisia. Even at work, my colleagues refuse to drink the same water as me.

The FRANCE 24 Observers team attempted to reach the spokesperson for the ministry of the interior for a comment but did not get a response. We will update this page if we do.

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