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Sub-Saharans in Tunisia fear for their lives following Saied's racist comments

A wave of violent racist attacks on sub-Saharan people living in Tunisia has spread across the country since President Kais Saied declared his belief in a conspiracy to change the demographic of Tunisia.
Protesters lift placards during a demonstration in Tunis on Feb. 25, 2023.

TUNIS — The ramifications of President Kais Saied’s speech to his security advisers last week, in which he expressed his belief that “successive waves of irregular migration” is a plot to transform the demography of Tunisia to that of “only an African country that has no affiliation to Arab and Islamic nations,” has resulted in a wave of violent attacks across the country, including incidents of rape and one confirmed murder in the city of Sfax.

A member of the executive committee of the Association of African Students and Interns in Tunisia (known by its French acronym AESAT) told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “We don’t have full figures, but we get daily reports of violent attacks” against sub-Saharan people in Tunisia.

This past Sunday saw the worst wave of violence to date. “It is difficult to collect all the data, but since Sunday, we know of 70 cases of physical violence” against sub-Saharans, the source said.

Attacks by Tunisian citizens, often in vigilante-style gangs, have been extremely vicious lately, he added. “On Monday night, a student in Bizerte was attacked so violently that they (the aggressors) fractured his skull.”

Videos depicting extreme violence by gangs of Tunisians against black people have been circulating on social media in recent days. AESAT has sent Al-Monitor a video of a student showing blood pouring down his face following what the student described as a violent racist attack against him. 

Embassies of countries such as Mali, Cameroon, Congo and Cote d’Ivoire have issued advice to their citizens to stay home, remain calm and respect the law. Many embassies are supporting their citizens’ decision to return home on voluntary repatriation flights for their own safety.

Al-Monitor tried to contact the concerned embassies, but officials refused to comment on the issue. Others were unavailable for comment.

“People are afraid to leave their homes for fear of being violently attacked,” said the committee member — himself an Ivorian who is facing racist attacks. “People bang on the door of my apartment and shout; there’s always noise. I just stay locked in my bedroom.”

Al-Monitor spoke to a number of members of the various sub-Saharan communities in Tunis, all of whom wish to remain anonymous for their personal safety. All have stated that they now live under a self-imposed curfew, remaining inside their homes after dark, with some even refusing to leave to shop for food. All describe feeling constantly terrified.

Two weeks ago on Feb. 16, the Forum for Economic and Social Rights — a nongovernmental organization defending the rights of migrants, among others — issued a press release stating that in the preceding days, some 300 people of sub-Saharan origin had been arrested across Tunisia. Al-Monitor reported on a similar phenomenon of mass arrests and racially motivated violence last year. However, this year has seen racial violence on a much larger scale. Over the past year, this Al-Monitor reporter has witnessed racist attacks and the use of racial slurs against sub-Saharan people.

In its press release, the Forum for Economic and Social Rights added that the Tunisia government has chosen to ignore the increasingly racist discourse on social media. AESAT last week listed three universities in Tunis where students of sub-Saharan origins have been verbally and physically attacked, and it advised students to remain home. 

International response to Saied’s remarks has been limited, with only the African Union (AU) publicly denouncing his comments as “racialized hate speech.” Tunisia’s Foreign Ministry responded, saying the AU’s accusations were “baseless.”

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Ferdinand Tohbi Djoh, secretary general of the Associations of Ivorians in Tunisia, expressed his disappointment that Western governments have not issued any statements denouncing Saied’s comments. “Only embassies of African countries whose citizens are affected have responded,” he added.

Henda Chnaoui, a Tunisian feminist activist and member of the Anti-Fascism Front, believes that Saied’s actions are effectively being endorsed by European states, pointing to a meeting between the Italian ambassador in Tunis, Fabrizio Saggio, and Tunisian Foreign Minister Nabil Ammar to discuss various issues, including “the common fight against irregular immigration.”

Only hours after Saied’s comments, the Anti-Fascism Front — a newly formed coalition of dozens of civil society organizations and activists — called for a rally in Tunis to denounce racism. “Around 200 people showed up at the rally. We also organized a march on Saturday to demand that Saied apologize,” Chnaoui said, noting that about 1,200 joined the march. “We are planning to organize more marches, and we are working with the sub-Saharan community to support them.” 

As racist attacks continue in Tunisia, embassies and associations supporting citizens of sub-Saharan Africa are working around the clock to deal with the crisis. Meanwhile, community groups and churches are delivering food parcels to those locked at home.

AESAT’s committee member said that the embassy of Cote d’Ivoire is trying to help some 1,000 Ivorians who now find themselves homeless. “The situation for foreign students generally is very difficult. And now, since Saied’s speech, many sub-Saharans have been evicted from their homes,” he said.

The source noted that the prevailing public attitude is making it difficult for sub-Saharan people to go about their lives. “Workers in post offices are refusing to give [sub-Saharan] students their Western Union payments, and agents at telecommunications shops are refusing to recharge their [prepaid] phone lines and Wi-Fi accounts. Taxi drivers won’t pick up black people, so they are forced to take public transport.”

But, he continued, “The real problem is the [residency permit],” as authorities have arrested people who do not have this permit. “They’ve made it even harder for students, increasing the amount of documents required to obtain the [residency permit]. This is all a political issue created by the state.”

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