Deconstructing the politics behind the mistreatment of migrants from Africa in Tunisia


Border guards in Libya have rescued hundreds of immigrants from Africa who were left stranded in the desert between Tunisia and Libya without food or water by the Tunisian authorities. July 16, 2023. Screenshot from a video by No Comment. Fair use.

Following several months of tensions between residents of Sfax and thousands of migrants from within Africa, for whom the city has been a transit point in their journey to Europe, Tunisian authorities took drastic measures on July 5. Several hundred migrants, including women and children, were forcefully removed from Sfax and abandoned in a no man’s land along the desert borders between Libya and Algeria. 

Sfax, Tunisia’s second largest city, has gained recognition as a major departure point for those seeking to reach Europe illegally through dangerous boat journeys across the Mediterranean Sea. However, recently, the city has become the focal point of violent clashes between Tunisians and migrants from within Africa. 

A tragic incident in which a 41-year-old Tunisian man named Nizar Amri was fatally stabbed to death by an “African migrant” set off this rise in violence. On Tunisian media, all people who have migrated from other parts of Africa are referred to as “African migrants. Unfortunately, this term is employed in a racist manner

On July 3, Tunisian populist MP Tarek Mahdi live-reported the unfolding event on Facebook, as he lives just 70 meters (300 feet) away from where the incident happened. Mahdi attributed the crime to a dispute between local residents and migrants from Africa, primarily triggered by noise problems in the migrants’ rented house. The language barrier compounded the situation, potentially contributing to the violent incident resulting in the death of Amri.

Three individuals from Cameroon were arrested in connection with the crime. However, social media reactions to the incident exhibited racist undertones and demands for the expulsion of all migrants from within Africa, regardless of their country of origin.

Crackdown on Sub-Saharan immigrants

Following the incident, a surge of violence erupted, with Tunisians blocking main roads, setting fire to tires, and launching attacks on the homes of immigrants. The immigrants were forcefully evicted from their rented accommodations, subjected to physical assaults, and detained. The situation was eventually resolved when the police intervened, restoring order.

Videos circulating on social media depicted the unfolding events:

Over the next few days, the authorities rounded up hundreds of immigrants and registered asylum seekers, transporting them to Ben Guerdane, a militarized border zone between Tunisia and Libya. They were left trapped in harsh conditions in that buffer zone, unable to move anywhere. They had limited access to water and food, and were without protection from the heat. Human Rights Watch reported receiving a video on July 4 in which an Ivorian asylum seeker was saying: 

“We are at the Tunisia-Libya border, at the seaside,” … “We were beaten [by Tunisian security forces].…We have many injured people here.…We have children who haven’t eaten for days … forced to drink sea water. We have a [Guinean] pregnant woman who went into labor … she died this morning … the baby died too.”

Sub-Saharan immigrants stranded in the desert between Tunisia and Libya. July 16, 2023. Screenshot from a video by No Comment. Fair use.

The plight of migrants in the desert has sparked concern and demands for immediate intervention. 

Under mounting local and international pressure, Tunisian authorities have been compelled to repatriate immigrants to Tunisian towns such as Medenine and Tataouine. Additionally, President Kais Saied issued an order for the Tunisian Red Crescent to provide aid to the migrants.

Tunisian civil society protested the mistreatment of immigrants:

Demonstration in support of sub-Saharan migrants organized by civil society in Tunis. While those in the south and on the Algerian borders have been rescued by the Tunisian Red Crescent, hundreds of others are still living on the streets in Sfax. #Tunisie #Sfax

Rise in migration from within Africa to Tunisia

Since 2010, migration from Africa has experienced a significant upsurge, although African migration itself has been a longstanding occurrence. According to a report by BBC Africa and the New Humanitarian, migrants have cited various reasons for their decision to migrate, including seeking improved economic opportunities, fleeing political instability, conflict, and environmental challenges.

Due to their transient nature and lack of proper documentation, accurately determining the exact number of migrants residing in Tunisia is challenging. Reuters estimates the current migrant population from African countries in Tunisia at 21,000. However, Le Monde reports that local NGOs suggest the number could be between 30,000 and 50,000.

Putting a specific number on migration is inherently controversial, as politicians often exaggerate the situation to create a climate of fear. For instance, President Saied on February 21, spoke of “hordes of illegal migrants” whose presence in Tunisia, he claimed, was a source of “violence, crime, and unacceptable acts.” 

The ongoing racial attacks against migrants throughout Tunisia intensified following President Saied's racist and xenophobic remarks, according to Amnesty International

President Saied’s discriminatory and hateful remarks during a National Security Council meeting on 21 February triggered an upsurge in anti-Black racist violence, with mobs taking to the streets and attacking Black migrants, students and asylum seekers, and police officers detaining and deporting scores.

The crackdown on migrants from Africa in Tunisia is indicative of President Saied's shift towards authoritarianism since coming to power in 2019. This development coincides with Tunisia, once celebrated as the Arab world’s only democracy, struggling with rising food and fuel prices, high unemployment, and growing social discontent. 

The president's campaign against migrants from Africa is perceived as a tactic to divert attention from the economic crisis Tunisia is facing. It is also seen as an attempt to redirect public anger caused by his decision to suspend the country's parliament in July 2021. Additionally, it could be a bargaining tool with Europe.

Controversial EU–Tunisia deal 

The European Union has recently offered USD 1 billion to support Tunisia's struggling economy and enhance border control measures aimed at preventing migrant boats from reaching Europe. 

Contrary to President Saied's previous statement in June, where he expressed Tunisia's unwillingness to serve as a border guard for other countries, a recent agreement was reached between Europe and Tunisia on July 16. This “strategic and comprehensive partnership” aims to disrupt the operations of people smugglers and human traffickers, enhance border control measures, and improve the processes of registration and repatriation, according to Mark Rutte, the prime minister of the Netherlands:

This deal presents mutual benefits for both Europe and Tunisia. It enables Europe to better control the flow of immigration into the continent while helping Tunisia to address its economic crisis. However, it does not address the root causes that drive immigration, nor does it alleviate the plight of immigrants in Tunisia.

It seems that Europe has chosen to overlook the human rights violations perpetrated against these immigrants in Tunisia in exchange for preventing them from reaching Europe.

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