Increased discrimination is being meted out against Black Africans in Tunisia, and it’s coming from the top. As part of his strategy to concentrate power, President Kais Saied has repeatedly spread racist conspiracy theories about migrants from other African countries. This may succeed as a short-term strategy to distract attention away from economic crisis. But the price is lethal violence and multiple other rights violations. None of this has stopped the European Union striking a migration cooperation deal with Tunisia. And yet people – Tunisians and migrants from elsewhere – keep risking their lives to cross to Europe. It’s time to put human rights at the centre of migration response.

It’s a dictator’s oldest trick: turn one population group against another, focusing public energies away from the real problems that could motivate them to revolt. Tunisia’s hardman President Kais Saied is doing just that by stoking enmity towards Black African migrants.

It started in February, when Saied blamed migrants from other African countries for crimes and violence, saying the government should take ‘urgent measures’ to stop undocumented migrants coming to Tunisia. He’s accused immigration of being part of a ‘criminal arrangement’ that will erode Tunisia’s Arab and Islamic identities, claiming that unnamed forces are paying people traffickers to bring people into Tunisia with the intention of undermining the country. It’s a bizarre perspective – but it’s unleashed a growing wave of hate with real-world repercussions.

In July it was reported that hundreds of people, including children and pregnant women, had been rounded up and dumped at Tunisia’s borders with Algeria and Libya. At the Algerian border, they were left in the desert at temperatures of over 40 degrees with no water. At the Libyan border, they were exposed to danger in a militarised zone. Those expelled included both documented and undocumented migrants, rounded up without due process and with violence, in clear contravention of Tunisia’s commitments under international law. Some were said to have died, and there were reports of sexual violence. In response to international backlash, some of the migrants were subsequently moved to camps.

Distraction from economic failings

Saied staged what was in effect a coup in July 2021 when he suspended the constitution and parliament. Since then he’s steadily accumulated power and silenced dissent. A new constitution drafted through an opaque process and approved in a low-turnout referendum in July 2022 dismantled checks and balances and consolidated presidential power. Parliament now has minimal power; most parties boycotted parliamentary elections in December 2022.

Troublingly, Saied’s power grab has received significant popular support. The country where the ‘Arab Spring’ wave of uprisings began, Tunisia was once seen as the region’s democratic success story. Civil society defended the Jasmine Revolution and for years it seemed it would avoid the post-uprising fates of other countries in the region, of either repressive crackdown or enduring conflict. But a key trigger of the revolution was economic frustration, with many struggling to get by – and that didn’t change under democracy. Many grew disenchanted with a democratic process they saw as ineffectual and characterised by self-serving political squabbling. Saied promised to sweep that away.

But for all the power he’s grabbed, Saied hasn’t made the economy any better. There are no more jobs than before, inflation is soaring and this year has seen shortages of essentials such as cooking oil, flour and milk.

In such context, latent racism and xenophobia, inflamed from the top, offer a useful distraction to stop people blaming the dictator for their woes. People from other African countries are cast as taking money out of the pockets and bread out of the mouths of Tunisians. Migrants have reported losing their homes and jobs and being subjected to increased ID checks and official and public hostility. Violence has inevitably followed.

The worst violence has come in the port city of Sfax, home to many of Tunisia’s migrants. Groups of locals armed with knives and clubs have threatened migrants. At least two people have been killed. In May, a man from Benin was stabbed to death when seven men attacked a group of migrants. A Tunisian man was stabbed to death in a confrontation between locals and people from Cameroon in July. This triggered more violent clashes and brought further claims from Saied that criminal networks were behind migration, aiming to ‘disturb social peace in Tunisia’. The unrest was directly followed by the government’s mass arrest and deportation campaign.

Conspiracy theory repurposed

In a protest in March, people came together to reject racism and Saied’s divide-and-rule populist politics. Civil society groups quickly and rightly moved to condemn Saied’s racist rhetoric. But such opposition likely doesn’t trouble him, since it enables Saied to depict civil society as siding with the enemy.

Perhaps more consequential was the World Bank’s announcement in March that it had suspended future cooperation with Tunisia in the wake of the racist violence that followed Saied’s comments. Following this the government tried to mollify international critics by setting up a hotline where people could report abuse. But the hostility hasn’t stopped.

In July, a politician from Sfax held aloft a sign in parliament during a migration debate stating that migrants were involved in a ‘plan to destroy the state’. The same politician posted a Facebook video saying that Tunisia was being ‘swarmed by Africans’ who are a ‘step towards the destruction of the country’.

Racial discrimination is against the law in Tunisia. But it’s clearly a law that’s being flouted from the very top down – and if the president doesn’t respect the law, why should anyone else?

Saied’s rhetoric is a version of the ‘great replacement theory’ that has become a central pillar of global north far-right thought, legitimised by authoritarian politicians such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. In the standard version of the theory, the white European and North American population are, through migration and differences in birthrates, being replaced by non-white and Muslim people. It’s a conspiracy theory that has directly led to hate crimes, cited by white supremacists committing acts of terrorism. It’s used by far-right groups to justify demands for tight border controls and hostility towards migrants – and to attack women’s and LGBTQI+ rights, which they blame for lower birthrates among non-migrant populations.

The Tunisian version gives it a novel spin, making it Arab and Muslim people who are supposedly being replaced by Black Africans, with Europe or Israel the forces allegedly behind the sinister plot. It was a fringe, extremist idea, but Saied has dragged it into the mainstream. And following his remarks, it got ample boosting on social media, which has been awash with racist hate speech and disinformation. His comments weren’t a one-off: in March a Tunisian diplomat said this wasn’t a theory – it was a reality.

What has happened this year shows precisely why concentrating power in the president with zero checks and balances is a bad idea.

Top-down racism is going hand-in-hand with repression. Those who might speak out to defend rights are being silenced. Politicians, lawyers and trade unionists have been detained and prosecuted. Under new laws supposedly intended to combat ‘false news’, people who criticise Saied online are being criminalised. The media and judiciary have been put under tight control. What has happened this year shows precisely why concentrating power in the president with zero checks and balances is a bad idea.

Reality of migration

There are thought to be around 21,000 migrants among Tunisia’s circa 12 million population – meaning they make up less than 0.2 per cent of residents, one of the lowest proportions in the world. Even if figures underestimate the number of undocumented migrants, there’s a huge gap between reality and rhetoric.

Most come from Central and West Africa, including Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea and Mali. In addition, around 10 to 15 per cent of Tunisians are Black, concentrated in the south. They’re systematically excluded and as a consequence of the division that’s been stoked they’ve also been subjected to increased racism.

Some migrants living in Tunisia are students, playing a vital role in universities before heading home. Others are staying temporarily, working to save for the dangerous crossing across the Mediterranean to Italy and thereby the European Union (EU). Increasing hostility in Tunisia may well accelerate their plans.

The EU, and particularly Italy’s far-right government, wants transit countries like Tunisia to do more to stop migrants before they start to cross. The determination to police the EU’s borders evidently trumps human rights concerns or any qualms about legitimising dictators.

In July, the EU and the Tunisian government signed a deal for the EU to provide over US$1 billion to support the return of migrants to Tunisia. But Saied stuck to his racist line, saying he’ll only accept Tunisians under the scheme. Like migrants from elsewhere in Africa, Tunisians are also making the crossing in increasing numbers, driven by economic desperation.

Caught in between are the people whose views appear to count the least: people, whether from Tunisia or other African countries, making dangerous sea crossings. Their peril was made tragically clear in August, when a boat from Sfax sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa, leaving 41 feared dead. So far this year over 2,000 people are unaccounted for on the Mediterranean migration route from Libya and Tunisia.

These sickening numbers are the clearest possible sign that the current approach to the global reality of migration isn’t working – on either side of the Mediterranean. A response to migration that addresses the reasons people flee and respects human rights is needed – but for his own political purposes, Tunisia’s President Saied is going furiously in the other direction, and doesn’t seem to care who suffers as a result.

OUR CALLS FOR ACTION

  • The government of Tunisia should immediately cease its attacks on migrants and commit to fully investigating all human rights violations.
  • European Union governments should abide by fundamental human rights principles in their migration cooperation with Tunisia.
  • The government of Tunisia should free all political prisoners and commit to respecting the right of people to express dissent.

Cover photo by Mahmud Turkia/AFP via Getty Images