African institutions maintain silence on sub-Saharan migrant rights abuses in Tunisia

Abandoned migrants in the desert. Screenshot from France24‘s YouTube channel.

African regional institutions are mostly indifferent to the inhumane treatment sub-Saharan migrants endure within North Africa.

On February 21, 2023, during a meeting of the National Security Council, Kais Saied, President of the Tunisian Republic, declared sub-Saharan migrants were sources of ‘violence, crimes, and unacceptable acts’ within his country. In the wake of this statement, migrants have increasingly become targets of racist actions and continue to encounter violations of their rights.

As a member of the African Union (AU), Tunisia holds permanent representation within this institution, yet it appears to disregard the rules and principles outlined in the African Union Declaration on Migration and Mobility. This declaration, aimed at promoting coordinated migration policies and safeguarding the rights and dignity of migrants, governs the institution that Tunisia has committed to uphold.

And yet, paradoxically, according to Tunisian president Kais Saied, the clandestine immigration of sub-Saharan nationals is seen as part of a conspiracy aimed at weakening his country. He states in an article from Le Monde:

Il existe un plan criminel pour changer la composition du paysage démographique en Tunisie, et certains individus ont reçu de grosses sommes d’argent pour donner la résidence à des migrants subsahariens.

There is a criminal plot to change the demographic composition of Tunisia, and certain individuals have received large sums of money to provide residency to sub-Saharan migrants.

It is crucial to analyse the numbers closely in order to understand the context. Ahlam Chemlali, a PhD student and specialist in migration issues at the Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS), spoke to Africanews, suggesting that:

De nombreuses organisations qui travaillent dans le domaine de la migration situent ces chiffres [de migrants subsahariens] entre 20 000 et 50 000 migrants originaires d'Afrique subsaharienne.

Numerous organisations working in the field of migration estimate these figures [of sub-Saharan migrants] to range between 20,000 and 50,000 migrants originating from Sub-Saharan Africa.

However, Tunisia itself has a population of over 11 million and experiences migratory flows to Europe, especially towards Italy. Majdi Karbai, former deputy representing Tunisians living in Italy and leader of the social-democratic party Democratic Current confirmed in an interview with Jeune Afrique:

Les chiffres suffisent tant ils sont éloquents : en 2022, 18 000 Tunisiens sont arrivés dans la péninsule, 15 000 en 2021, 13 000 en 2020. Faites les comptes, et comparez avec les 20 000 Subsahariens en situation irrégulière présents en Tunisie, selon le Forum tunisien pour les droits économiques et sociaux [FTDES]. Les Tunisiens sont les champions de la migration.

The numbers speak volumes: in 2022, 18,000 Tunisians arrived on the peninsula, 15,000 in 2021, and 13,000 in 2020. Do the math and compare it to the 20,000 sub-Saharan migrants in irregular situations present in Tunisia, as reported by the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights [FTDES]. Tunisians are migration champions.

Continental and regional institutions fail to act

Following the official statements from Tunisia, the reaction of the African Union was swift. On February 24, Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chairperson of the AU Commission, condemned the comments the Tunisian president made, deeming them racist and hateful towards migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. However, apart from this condemnation, no further action has been taken by the AU to safeguard the dignity and protect the rights of migrants on Tunisian territory.

Similarly, regional institutions such as the Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa (CEMAC) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have remained conspicuously silent in this matter. Yet, these institutions work towards promoting the free movement of migrant individuals, facilitating citizen mobility, and establishing mechanisms for migrant protection. They also address the challenges and risks faced by migrants, including those crossing North Africa to reach other regions.

There are still official initiatives, such as the one taken by Umaro Sissoco Embalo, president of Guinea-Bissau and former head of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). On March 8, 2023, he visited Tunisia and posted on his Twitter account:

As the President of ECOWAS, I visited President Kais Saied to inquire about the situation of sub-Saharan Africans in Tunisia. Addressing the misinterpretation of his statements, he reaffirmed his belief in African values of unity, hospitality, and respect, and his commitment to uphold them.

— Umaro Sissoco Embaló (@USEmbalo) 8 mars 2023

However, in practice, nothing has changed regarding the conditions and treatment of migrants.

This resounding silence coexists with videos circulating on the internet depicting the daily experiences and inhumane treatment faced by these men, women, and children:

However, the numerous appeals have had no impact on the stance of the AU. Edwy Plenel, president and co-founder of Mediapart in France, addressed this issue in a tweet:

Between Tunisia and Libya, the unbearable ordeal of sub-Saharan migrants. Tragically illustrated by the fate of Fati Dosso and her daughter Marie, found lifeless in the desert. They are believed to have died of thirst after being abandoned. By @NejmaBrahim

— Edwy Plenel (@edwyplenel) 26 juillet 2023

Civil society is the sole voice expressing its indignation loudly and clearly

The silence from governmental authorities of Sub-Saharan African countries and regional institutions is deemed an aberration by some civil society actors. Boubacar Seye, a researcher, international migration consultant, and president of Senegal-based NGO Horizons Sans Frontières, assesses the state of affairs in his country. In this video excerpt from an interview on TV5monde, he states:

I fully agree with Boubacar Seye's diagnosis from the NGO Horizons Sans Frontières. #Immigration @Macky_Sall @SonkoOfficiel @drelhadjiAdiouf @AbdoulMBAYE2019 @PapeDjibrilFall @Bouganegueye @Boubacarcamou @maryteuwniane

— Seydina Aliou SANE (@seydinaaliou_)  25 juillet 2023

When contacted by Global Voices via phone, Seye held African leaders to account:

Nous sommes dans un monde globalisé mais l’Afrique brille par son absence et pour la plupart des dirigeants la migration est aujourd’hui une soupape pour le système économique. L’Union européenne vient injecter l’argent en Tunisie pour bloquer les migrants, et la Tunisie accepte de jouer le rôle de gendarme pour l’Europe. C’est triste. Ces dirigeants africains devraient être appelé à l’ordre.

We live in a globalised world, yet Africa is conspicuous by its absence, and for most leaders, migration has become a safety valve for their economic system. The European Union is injecting money into Tunisia to block migrants, and Tunisia agrees to play the role of guardian for Europe. It's sad. These African leaders need to be held accountable.

According to Seye, 60 percent of Africa's population is under 25 years old, and unemployment rates are significantly above 35 percent. The post-COVID-19 era risks generating significant geopolitical tension related to migration. Seye believes that, in addition to the current situation in Tunisia, these migratory flows will grow in amplitude due to extreme poverty. As an alternative, he suggests:

Il faudrait que les institutions continentales, régionales et les pouvoirs publics mettent cette question de migration au cœur de leurs préoccupations en Afrique. Toute la jeunesse est en train de périr et il est urgent que les dirigeants prennent leurs responsabilités. Il faut aussi convoquer les états généraux de la migration pour qu’ensemble le dossier soit analysé dans sa complexité pour que des solutions durables soient trouvées. L’Union européenne quant à elle devrait aussi discuter directement avec l’Union africaine.

Continental, regional institutions, and public authorities should place the issue of migration at the heart of their concerns in Africa. The whole of the younger generation is facing dire consequences, and it's crucial that leaders shoulder their responsibilities. A public debate should be convened, so that the issue can be analysed in its complexity, and sustainable solutions be found. The European Union should also engage in direct discussions with the African Union.

In Tunisia as well, the only voices defending the rights of sub-Saharan migrants come from civil society. As evidenced by this tweet from Stéphanie Pouessel, an anthropologist:

Urgent appeal to civil society in #Tunisia: I found these Ivorians sleeping outside their embassy for 2 nights. They didn't have any food or water. They had been robbed and evicted from their homes. They responded to their embassy's call to be repatriated. It's absolutely shameful.

— Stéphanie Pouessel (@PouesselStef) 26 février 2023

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