Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Tunisia’s Sub-Saharan Migrants are Country’s New Scapegoat

Kais Saied, has targeted undocumented Tunisia’s sub-Saharan African migrants, blaming them for the country's economic difficulties.

Tunisia's Sub-Saharan Migrants
Migrant gestures outside the headquarters of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Tunis after President Kais Saied ordered “urgent measures” against sub-Saharan migrants. FETHI BELAID / AFP

Dana Hourany

Since Tunisia’s president Kais Saied took power in 2019, the country has been undergoing a series of crackdowns on the liberties and freedoms that were gained following the 2011 revolution.

Saied’s current target, it seems, is the minority of sub-Saharan migrants.

In an address to his National Security Council on February 21, Tunisia’s president called undocumented migrants from sub-Saharan Africa a demographic threat to the country.

“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 said, adding that the influx of irregular migrants must be stopped immediately.

The president stated that sub-Saharan migrants engaged in “violence, criminality, and unacceptable acts,” and claimed that since the turn of the century, “criminal arrangements had been made to change the demographic makeup of Tunisia.”

While accusations against migrants are not new to the MENA region or unique to Tunisia, they are comparatively uncommon in the North African nation.

Migrant students were advised to stay off the streets for fear of attacks. Many remained indoors as the rhetoric escalated.

Dark-skinned people of African ancestry have long been mistreated in the MENA region. However, they are now being used as political scapegoats, experts say – a phenomenon which has grave implications on social cohesion and security.

Explaining the reasons

According to FTDES, a social and economic rights advocacy organization, there are about 21,000 sub-Saharan Africans living in Tunisia, most of whom arrive legally to work or study.

Out of a total population of around 12 million, Tunisia also has a sizable black population, who are presently experiencing the same discriminatory repercussions brought on by Saied’s speech.

Most African migrants work for construction companies, childcare facilities, and lumber companies; some even use the country as a transit route to enter Europe illegally.

In 2018, just before Saied’s election, Tunisia became the first Arab country to criminalize racial discrimination by law. In previous years, the president even spoke proudly about Tunisia’s African identity, The Washington Post reported.

However, the growing opposition and dissatisfaction with the current economic climate may have compelled Saied to turn against migrants, according to Selim Kharrat, board member of Al-Bawsala, a Tunisian NGO dedicated to promoting democracy and human rights.

“Saied’s strategy is to create a false enemy when dealing with a complex economic situation that he is seemingly incapable of maneuvering,” Kharrat told Fanack. “Therefore, the blame is moved from politicians to migrants, which are now a distraction tool from the mismanagement of the economic situation.”

Saied’s remarks come at a crucial moment. Tunisia is beset by shortages in basic staples such as cooking oil, coffee, and even pharmaceuticals. Therefore, by diverting attention from the deteriorating conditions, the public will lose sight of the president’s actual incompetence, Kharrat says.

During Tunisia’s parliamentary runoffs in late January, only 11% of the electorate cast their ballots, with critics of Saied arguing that the empty polling stations were evidence of the public’s disapproval.

To regain public favor, the president employed a populist rhetoric that resonates with a large segment of the Tunisian public and highlights a core threat, Kharrat notes.

“His method is to use the Islamic Arab identity and to place a false threat upon it since Tunisians tend to be highly conservative and protective of their identity and religion,” he said.

The Great Replacement theory

As previously mentioned, the idea that immigration negatively affects a nation’s demography is not exclusive to Tunisia. In fact, the “Great Replacement” theory, which is an extreme far-right theory, was made famous by French writer Renaud Camus in 2010.

This theory’s core claim is that there is a “conspiracy” to bring Arab and Muslim refugees from Africa and the Middle East into Europe in order to displace white Christians. Unfortunately, this has resulted in a great deal of hostile actions being conducted against minority groups in Western countries.

Now the Great Replacement has made its way to Tunisia. French far-right politician Eric Zemmour even endorsed Saied’s statement, saying: “The countries of the Maghreb region have begun to sound the alarm in the face of the escalation of immigration. Tunisia wants to take urgent action to protect its people. What are we waiting for to fight the Great Replacement?”

According to Kharrat, Saied may have temporarily strengthened his ties to European countries, particularly those that might grant him financial support and act as donors.

A week after Saied’s statement, Italian Prime Giorgia Melonie contacted Saied to offer help in alleviating Tunisia’s financial woes.

In their conversation, the two state officials expressed similar complaints and interests. They reportedly overlapped on issues of migration, Italy’s assistance with the IMF loan negotiations, plus a plan to link the two countries’ electrical grids.

“There is great Italian concern about the social crisis in Tunisia. It is necessary to contribute to Tunisian stabilization and growth also with economic support,” Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani reportedly said in a recent telephone conversation with Kristalina Georgieva, director general of the International Monetary Fund. “Italy will continue to do its part,” Tajani said, according to the Arab Weekly.

On March 7 the World Bank announced that it will be pausing all future works in Tunisia amid increasing rates of racial violence.

As the government seeks a bailout from the International Monetary Fund for its public finances, the World Bank has been a significant donor to Tunisia, enabling it to finance food imports and business expansion.

“It is likely that the president caved into pressure from European nations – especially Italy – to stop the flow of migrants escaping to Europe from Tunisia,” Kharrat said.

Other experts have echoed the same observation, and a number of rights groups have stated that European migration policies were pushing Tunisia to monitor migrants’ routes and intercept their boats at sea.

Sitting just off the coast of Europe, Tunisia is less than 150 kilometers away from Italy’s Lampedusa Island and serves as a launching pad to many migrants in the MENA region.

Repercussions and unrest

Since Saied’s statement, violence against sub-Saharan Africans has skyrocketed. A number of people camped in front of their embassies after being evicted, while black students and workers remained hidden amid a slew of WhatsApp messages spreading rumors of vigilante violence.

Moreover, Tunisian law enforcement has conducted raids resulting in the arrest of more than 500 immigrants in the week following the statement. Even children and their parents were taken away by the police. Some have also been apprehended on buses, and on construction sites.

Several migrants were reported to have suffered injuries as a result of physical assaults for just appearing on the streets.

Wejdene Bouabdallah, an independent Tunisian journalist, told Fanack that despite racism being present in Tunisian culture, it had been restrained and suppressed. “Kais Saied let out all the deep-seated discrimination that had been buried in the Tunisian psyche by supporting such hate speech, essentially inciting violence against migrants.”

“He has undone decades of coexistence and tolerance that our ancestors achieved by respecting one another and not acting on racist impulses,” she added.

The neighboring countries of the Maghreb have not made any official statements condemning or endorsing Saied’s comments. Their silence, Kharrat says, “is a sign of acceptance.”

The expert observes that further diplomatic and economic isolation for Tunisia appears probable as its reputation for upholding human rights continues to deteriorate amid tense relations with African nations that may halt trade activity.

As African migrants leave the country in large numbers, the situation appears to be only worsening. Many members of the public support the president’s statement and have taken violent measures both online and offline to express their distaste for migrants.

Racial discrimination not new to the region

MENA countries at large are riddled with racism against dark skinned individuals. Yet for centuries, discourse on racism in the region has largely remained buried.

“Slavery in Arab history and the emergence of the Kafala system are two things to take into account when discussing racism in the Middle East,” Kareem Nofal, a communication specialist at the Lebanese Anti-Racism Movement NGO told Fanack.

The Kafala system was introduced in the 1950s and it essentially gives employers full control over domestic workers, who typically hail from Africa and South Asia, obliterating their freedoms and legal rights.

The slave trade, on the other hand, is a lesser known contender of racism in the region. Yet, it is precisely due to this persistent silence that the slave trade’s impact on MENA remains uncontested, culminating in a denial of the painful racial histories that underpin today’s discrimination. As a result, people from these communities endure constant oppression, social alienation, and marginalization at large.

“When we still have environments that nourish hate speech and people in top positions that incite hate against migrants; social explosions that contain physical violence are always a possibility,” Nofal said.

Minorities, such as refugees, migrants, and LGBTQ+ people, continue to be used by politicians as scapegoats in order to distract the public from their political failures.

“There has been a long debate over Arab identity across the MENA region, and the concept has yet to be clearly defined. Several arguments still exist regarding what an Arab looks like, what skin color one should have, or which countries in the MENA can be classified as Arab,” Nofal notes, adding that this vagueness and attachment to the Arab identity can lead to the creation of multiple enemies that appear different and therefore dangerous.

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