TUNIS, Tunisia — Civil society and student organizations have sounded the alarm on the sharp rise of arbitrary arrests and police violence against people of sub-Saharan origin, especially as food shortages contribute to a socio-economic pressure cooker.
President of AESAT Christian Kwongang described a wave of arrests beginning back in November with the arrest of a female student sentenced to two weeks in prison. Kwongang told Al-Monitor, "We have counted approximately 300 arrests of sub-Saharan people including students around the municipality of Ariana [in Greater Tunis]."
It is not just police violence that sub-Saharans in Tunisia fear. Kwongang
Head of AESAT’s council Mamady Kalle told Al-Monitor that since publishing the figures of arbitrary arrests in Tunis, and although there had been some reduction in arrests in Ariana overall, the crisis has worsened with a rise of arrests in other cities, particularly Nabeul in Cap Bon, which is a major trafficking port for those trying to emigrate informally to Europe. Kalle said that the current food shortages in Tunisia began some weeks ago and have recently worsened due to the Ukrainian war. Circumstances have become “very complicated” for sub-Saharans in general, he said. “We cannot get food. Sub-Saharans eat a lot of rice and there are shortages; shopkeepers hide the rice and either refuse to sell to [Black] foreigners or just give us one packet."
A member of Lionheart for Humanity spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity about the word "migrant." She said, “We call ourselves ‘chercheurs' [seekers]. We try to explain what that means. We are looking for something — a better life.” She described the daily trials of being a woman of sub-Saharan origin in Tunisia, noting, “They call us things like ‘Black slave’ or ‘You're dirty.' It’s not just the violence, it is the total physical economy. They pay us less or not at all. When I take the metro I’m afraid [of being arrested]. I'm stressed all the time.”
Vice President of Lionheart for Humanity Cecile Onana told Al-Monitor that she originally came to Tunisia to study, but after a while could not afford to pay her tuition fees. "We have to pay in euros,” she said, noting that she worked odd jobs to try to make ends meet. She explained that going home is problematic, not just financially but because of social expectations from family and friends to be “a success.” Instead, she and her Lionheart colleagues are trying to make the best of their lives, but getting a “carte sejour” (residency card/work permit) costs a lot of money. She added, "But despite having an association and being part of Tunisia’s normally powerful civil society, at our level we cannot enter into dialogue with the authorities.”
AESAT, which negotiates with the authorities, claims that the community is under surveillance and that phones are tapped. “People are afraid to use their phones — afraid that if they use their phones they will be arrested,”
Monica Marks, assistant professor of Arab Crossroads Studies at New York University in Abu Dhabi, has been documenting and writing about Tunisia for over 11 years. She told Al-Monitor, “The police are more unleashed than ever, and there is a widespread but routinely unacknowledged downplaying of prejudices against sub-Saharans that is reflected within the police force.”
“It’s a very serious situation. These arrests were just of only Black students,” said Arij Djelassi, project coordinator for Arthemis. He told Al-Monitor, “The Ministry of Interior has not communicated the number of arrests to the [relevant] embassies.”