Sub-Saharan migrants in Tunisia living in ‘climate of fear’ after surge in racist attacks

Hundreds of sub-Saharan migrants fled Tunisia on repatriation flights Saturday after a surge in racist attacks in the North African country following a controversial speech from President President Kais Saied. As tensions reach boiling point, FRANCE 24 talked to Patrick*, a Congolese student who decided to stay despite fearing for his safety.

“Right now, we are afraid to go out for a walk like we used to,” says Patrick*, a Congolese 29-year-old who arrived in Tunisia six months ago to study international business. In the past few weeks, attitudes in Tunisia have hardened towards people like him from sub-Saharan Africa. 

Sub-Saharan migrants living in the North African country have long faced racial stigma, but in the wake of comments from Tunisian President Kais Saied on February 21 tensions have reached boiling point. In a hardline speech targeting illegal immigration the president called for “urgent measures” against “hordes of illegal immigrants” coming from sub-Saharan Africa who he blamed for bringing “violence, crimes and unacceptable deeds” to Tunisia. 

Echoing the great replacement theory popular among some right-wing groups in Europe and the US, he said illegal immigration was the result of a “criminal plan … to change the demographic composition of Tunisia”. 

“The undeclared goal of the successive waves of illegal immigration is to consider Tunisia a purely African country that has no affiliation to the Arab and Islamic nations,” he added. 

Saied’s speech was condemned by the African Union, NGOs and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The latter criticised his remarks as “xenophobic, offensive and humiliating for the community of sub-Saharan migrants”.  

But, since the speech, attacks on people from sub-Saharan Africa living in Tunisia have multiplied. “I entered Tunisia legally, with my passport, to come and study,” Patrick says. “But because some people enter Tunisia illegally, people make sweeping statements that all Black people have come to take over their country.” 

According to official figures cited by the Tunisian rights group FTDES, there are around 21,000 sub-Saharan migrants in Tunisia, a country of about 12 million inhabitants. 

Partick has stopped leaving the house to avoid being targeted. “We are afraid. For the last two weeks I’ve been staying inside. I haven’t been attacked, but I’ve got friends who have been. Since the Tunisian president made his speech, there are Tunisians who are attacking Black people,” he says. 

He lives with another student who has also avoided leaving the house. The pair “make an effort” to go outside sometimes and buy food. “We stay close to home to buy bread and juice. [We only go] into small shops. That’s it.” 

‘Arbitrary attacks’ 

“There is a climate of fear. Things are very tense right now,” says Saadia Mosbah, president of M’nemty, an association working to fight against racial discrimination in Tunisia. 

In the Tunisian city of Sfax four sub-Saharan Africans were attacked with knives during the night of February 25. On the same night in the capital Tunis, four Ivorian students were attacked as they left their halls of residence, RFI reported

“People from sub-Saharan Africa are victim to arbitrary attacks,” Mosbah says, “They are being stigmatised due to the colour of their skin and, consequently, even some black Tunisians are being attacked, as happened to one of the victims in Sfax.”   

Aside from the president’s speech, Mosbah says the Tunisian Nationalist Party (le parti nationaliste tunisien), founded in 2018, has been stoking anti-migrant tensions for months through its speeches and door-to-door campaigns. 

“Militias [from the party] are patrolling the streets in Greater Tunis, Sfax and Médenine ordering landlords to turn sub-Saharan Africans out into the street. They are threatening shopkeepers with closure, legal action, fines and even prison unless they stop selling sub-Saharan Africans milk, rice and semolina,” Mosbah and psychiatrist and writer Fatma Bouvet de la Maisonneuve wrote in an open letter published on March 3 in French daily Le Monde.  

Black African migrants have been “thrown out of housing without their belongings”, says Mosbah. “There are places where houses have even been burned down and pillaged. The people we are now seeing waiting in front of their embassies don’t have a penny to their name ­– their money has been stolen.” 

‘We are afraid’ 

In an increasingly dangerous environment, sub-Saharan Africans in Tunisia have been flocking to their embassies in recent days, asking for emergency repatriation. Many are unregistered migrants and have lost their work and their accommodation overnight. 

The Ivory Coast embassy in Tunis flew home 50 nationals on March 1 – including entire families with children and babies – who had spent days camping outside the official building on mattresses and under tarps.  

On the same day around 50 Guinean migrants landed in Conakry after having fled Tunisia on the first repatriation flight after Saied’s speech. Events in Tunisia were “a senseless outpouring of hate”, one told AFP after their plane had landed. 

>> Hundreds of West African migrants flee Tunisia after President Saied’s controversial crackdown

The growing numbers of sub-Saharan Africans fleeing the country is a source of anxiety for Patrick. “We are afraid. Our sub-Saharan brothers are returning home and now, those of us who are still here, are scared that reprisals are going to fall on us if we stay.” The business student believes the international community should step in to “give a sense of security to sub-Saharans who have stayed in Tunisia”. 

But he does not want to leave, for the moment. “I came here with an objective: to study. I paid for my plane ticket to come here and I paid my school fees. I could return to my country for my safety, but I would be losing out.” 

Even so, he says: “I feel in danger. We are trying to stay optimistic. We hope that things will get better. But we are still afraid.” 

* name has been changed  

This article has been translated from the original in French. 

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