Tunisia: wave of attacks on Black African migrants has been fuelled by president's racism

Tunisia is in the grip of xenophobic attacks © Yassine Gaidi/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

President Kais Saied’s racist speech last month has incited a wave of violence against Black Africans 

New testimonies illustrate horror of mob attacks

‘The community of Black African migrants in Tunisia is now gripped by fear’ - Heba Morayef

The Tunisian authorities must ensure an immediate end to a wave of attacks against Black African migrants which started in early February and accelerated following racist and xenophobic comments made last month by President Kais Saied, said Amnesty International.

Discriminatory and hateful remarks from President Saied during a National Security Council meeting on 21 February have triggered an upsurge in anti-Black racist violence in Tunisia, with mobs taking to the streets and attacking Black migrants, students and asylum-seekers.

President Saied said that “hordes of irregular migrants from sub-Saharan Africa” had come to Tunisia “with all the violence, crime, and unacceptable practices that entails”. He said this was an “unnatural” situation and part of a criminal plan designed to “change the demographic make-up” and turn Tunisia into “just another African country that doesn't belong to the Arab and Islamic nations anymore”. 

In recent months, a campaign of anti-Black hatred has swept social and mainstream media in Tunisia. The Tunisian Nationalist party - which espouses “great replacement” ideology and says the presence of Black Africans in Tunisia is part of a “plot to change the composition of society” - is regularly featured in the media and extremely vocal online, with no reaction from the authorities.

The Tunisian authorities initially denied that racist violence against Black Africans had been taking place, but after an international outcry following the president’s comments the authorities announced “new measures” on 5 March to facilitate the legal residency of migrants, as well as a process of repatriation for those “wishing to voluntarily leave the country” - yet the attacks have continued.

Amnesty has interviewed 20 people in Tunis - among them five asylum-seekers and 15 undocumented migrants from Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria, Guinea and Ivory Coast. They were all attacked by mobs, and in at least three cases the police were present but failed to intervene. In eight cases, migrant workers and asylum-seekers said they’d been forced out of their homes by mobs and their belongings were either stolen or destroyed. Ten people told Amnesty they’d been expelled by their landlords after the authorities threatened to punish anyone hosting or employing “illegal migrants”. 

Some of those interviewed were staying in unhygienic conditions in a makeshift camp in Tunis near the International Organisation for Migration, with no access to food except what was distributed by volunteer citizens’ groups. Many of those interviewed said violence against Black people had already been a regular feature of their life in Tunisia, though attacks had escalated after the president’s speech. 

Since the beginning of February, Avocats sans Frontières - an organisation providing legal aid to asylum-seekers and migrants - has confirmed that at least 840 Black African migrants, students and asylum-seekers have been detained in several cities. Amnesty has seen recent videos and photos taken from inside Ouardia, a detention centre in Tunis, showing security agents beating migrants. In one video, officers forcefully dragged a Black man down a flight of stairs.

Hundreds of Black Africans have been intimidated into returning to their own countries. At least 300 Malians and Ivorians were returned on 4 March as part of a “voluntary evacuation” process. A group of Guinean migrants were repatriated on 1 March. 

Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Director, said:

“The community of Black African migrants in Tunisia is now gripped by fear of assault or of being arbitrarily arrested and summarily deported.

“So far, the Tunisian authorities have sought to downplay these violent attacks and even deny them altogether.

“President Saied must retract his comments and order investigations to clearly signal that anti-Black racist violence will not be tolerated. The president must stop finding scapegoats for Tunisia’s economic and political woes. 

“The authorities should prioritise the investigation of incidents of police violence against Black migrants, put an immediate end to forcible returns currently underway and prevent any further racially-motivated attacks by gangs or state agents.”  

Cases of abuse

On 24 February, Manuela D, 22, a Cameroonian asylum-seeker, was stabbed in the chest and suffered horrific injuries. She was attacked by a group of six men who shouted racist insults at her. She told Amnesty that she was in the Ariana district of Tunis, outside a café, when she felt a violent blow to her neck. She fell on the ground and heard voices shouting, in French “go back home, you gang of Blacks, we don’t want you here”. When she later regained consciousness she was in the hospital, covered in blood, with her clothes torn. She had a long open wound on her right breast, and other injuries to her abdomen and her lips. 

Aziz, 21, from Sierra Leone, told Amnesty that he came to Tunisia in June 2021 to work in construction. He said that a few days after the president’s speech, ten Tunisians came to his house in Ariana, broke down the door, stole his belongings and forced him and his family outside. Aziz recounts what the perpetrators said: “all Black people must leave, they don’t want to see us, they don’t want us here … they took our money, even our food, they said we don’t want any Black people, go back to Africa”.

Milena, a student from Burkina Faso, reported that she was subjected to a physical and verbal attack by the police. She told Amnesty that she was coming out of a supermarket on the morning of 3 March when three Tunisian men standing nearby began to insult her, telling her to leave the country. A passing police car then stopped, but instead of addressing the men asked her to produce her residency permit. She replied that she was a student and produced her documents. However, she was immediately handcuffed, forced into the police car and taken to Ariana police station. She said, “When I got to the police station one policeman shouted at me saying, “you Blacks create problems … and another one kneed me in the stomach”. After four hours’ detention, she was released when a Tunisian woman whom she knew came to vouch for her.  

Djomo, 30, a construction worker from Cote d’Ivoire, told Amnesty that on 5 March, at about 8pm, he was sleeping in a house in Sfax he shares with five others when he heard a loud bang on the door and a group of around ten men broke in. Djomo said:

“They were armed with batons, some forced two of my flatmates out and beat them until they fell on the floor. Others started destroying everything in the house, they took the money and phones off some of us. The National Guard came 30 minutes later, they didn’t arrest the assailants, but instead handcuffed us and took us to their headquarters.” 

Djomo said he was arrested along with 25 others that night, including an eight-months pregnant woman. The following day, all of them were taken to court before later being freed. Djomo said the landlord has told them they cannot come back to the house. At the time of the interview, he was living rough on the streets. 
 

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