Since last week, there has been a vicious campaign against sub-Saharan Africans in the streets of Tunisia, following comments by the president. Shreya Parikh writes how anyone who fits the category of ‘African’—sub-Saharan students and documented or undocumented workers, as well as Black Tunisians are being harassed on the streets by police and civilians, and many attacked, stabbed, and forced into hiding.
On 21 February 2023, President Kais Saied called a meeting with the National Security Council to take urgent measures “to address the phenomenon of the influx of large numbers of irregular migrants from sub-Saharan Africa to Tunisia.” According to the statement published by the Tunisian Presidency on their Facebook page, Saied “pointed out that there is a criminal arrangement that has been prepared since the beginning of this century to change the demographic composition of Tunisia and that there are parties that received huge sums of money after 2011 in order to settle irregular immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa in Tunisia.” The goal of this migration, according to Saied, is to make Tunisia “a purely African country with no affiliation with the Arab and Islamic nations.” The statement adds that Saied “stressed the need to put an end to this phenomenon [of irregular migration] quickly, especially since hordes of irregular immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa are still continuing with the violence, crimes and unacceptable practices they lead to, in addition to being legally criminalized.”
This statement, which French far-right politician Eric Zemmour has supported and linked to the “Great Replacement” theory, launched a state- and civilian-supported mass violence to rid Tunisia of ‘Africans’- on the streets, in private spaces, and on the social-media. Many Tunisians on already-proliferating anti-sub-Saharan online groups declared themselves the protector of Tunisia’s so-called Arabo-Muslim identity in the face of the fear of Tunisia becoming ‘too African.’ For them, to be Tunisian is to be Arab and Muslim, all of which are antonymous to being African. In the Tunisian social imagination, to be African is to be Black, economically, and culturally poor, prone to all forms of excess and vice, needing to be controlled and (if need be) annihilated. By extension, to be Tunisian is to not be Black.
“Africans eat too much!” Blaming the other for the escalating socio-economic crisis
Since January 2022, rice has disappeared from the shelves of Tunis’ supermarkets. One of the popular explanations that has emerged for this disappearance is that the ‘Africans’ in Tunisia are ‘eating away all the rice,’ as pointed out to me by Yasmina, a 41-year-old Black Tunisian woman who has been active in denouncing all forms of racism in Tunisia.1
‘Les Africains,’ in the Tunisian vernacular, refers to the sub-Saharan migrant populations, who are 2 Most of them are undocumented guest-workers, while a small proportion of them are university students. Many are hoping to make their way to the Global North. ‘Les Africains’ as a racializing category also includes the Black Tunisian population who are estimated to be make up between 10 and 15 percent of the population; Black Tunisians are assumed to be sub-Saharan migrants or assumed to trace their ancestry to enslaved families, even though a complex variety of migrations from other African regions brought their ancestors to Tunisia.3
The rice-crisis is not the first time that populations racialized as ‘African’ are blamed for a social and economic disaster in Tunisia, which in reality is a direct consequence of the state’s abandonment of marginalized communities and the pressures of global capitalism. Back in June 2021, while I was doing my fieldwork in the city of Sfax, protests were held by a group of unemployed Tunisians, calling for expulsion of ‘African’ migrant workers whom they accused of ‘taking away Tunisians’ jobs.’
The anti-African discourse has now infected President Kais Saied’s regime, finally reaching the words of the president himself. In the past few months, an ex-minister as well as members of Saied-supporting Parti nationaliste tunisien (Tunisian Nationalist Party) have openly made racist and xenophobic comments, calling for expulsion of ‘Africans’ from Tunisia. Saied, who took on authoritarian powers with a coup d’état on 25 July 2021, has increasingly relied on a populist discourse that blames a constructed ‘other’ for the social and economic crisis facing Tunisia; this ‘other’ has included political opponents, NGOs, and civil society figures, and recently, the ‘Africans.’
The state’s official adoption of the most violent form of anti-‘African’ discourse, which places itself in the genealogy of the dangerous Great Replacement ideology, has unleashed a massive anti-Black and anti-migrant hatred that was previously kept to racist remarks or occasional cases of anti-Black violence. What we have in Tunisia, as I write these words, is a vicious pursuit for anyone who fits the social imagination of ‘African.’ sub-Saharan students and undocumented guest workers, as well as Black Tunisians are being harassed on the streets by police and civilians; many are being stabbed and robbed; Tunisian activist Saif Ayadi has called this an “extermination war” against the migrants.4 The police are arresting those whom they see as ‘African,’ putting most into detention under inhumane conditions, without any clear reason. Adama, a young Ivorian man living in Tunis with a resident permit, told me in a voice that edged towards a cry, that many (like himself) who are arrested are being forced to sign false attestations in Arabic (that most cannot read) that declare that they were trying to make their way ‘illegally’ to Italy—a punishable crime under Tunisian law. A Black Tunisian woman activist was harassed in Tunis city-center because someone thought that she was a migrant.
Men pretending to be police are kidnapping sub-Saharan migrants and raping women, as Joseph, a 23-year-old Congolese student in Tunis mentioned during our conversation. Sub-Saharan migrants are being kicked out of their homes, their valuables burnt or robbed by Tunisian mobs, and many are finding themselves homeless; shelters funded by state money have orders not to house them. Sub-Saharan migrants are being fired from their jobs and are being replaced suddenly by Tunisians from whom they are accused of ‘stealing jobs.’ Many are being refused groceries at stores because ‘Africans eat too much,’ as an Ivorian interlocutor in Sfax recounted her experience. Others are being refused medical support that they are in urgent need of. Everyone who falls under the socially constructed category of ‘African’—those with or without jobs, those with university classes to attend—are too scared to leave their homes because the racist violence has spread to every street in Tunisia.
On 23 February, the president went on to (partly) backtrack his speech, reassuring sub-Saharan migrants ‘legally’ residing in the country that he never wished to target them, that he is only targeting the ‘illegal’ migrants. Most sub-Saharan migrants (like Western European migrants) enter Tunisia as legal migrants because of 3-month visa-free policies; but the Tunisian state forces all migrants to become illegal by its refusal to deliver legal documentation. This means that Tunisia also has European migrants living ‘illegally.’ But in the social and political construction of the ‘illegal migrant,’ white bodies never fit. It is the Black and dark-skinned bodies that are assumed to be illegal and criminal, as is clear from arrests of sub-Saharan migrants who carry residence permits, as well as absence of arrests of European ‘illegal’ migrants. The hunt for ‘illegal’ migrants has never been about the undocumented status, even before Saied’s speech— black and dark-skinned migrants (including myself), irrespective of their documentation status, have continuously faced police intimidation and state surveillance.
Externalizing (and internalizing) borders
The externalization of European Union borders onto its southern Mediterranean shores has meant that both Tunisian and sub-Saharan migrants seeking to exercise their right to mobility North find their mobility constrained and controlled by so-called securitization apparatus. Many Tunisians, like sub-Saharan Africans, who attempt to make their way to the North via the sea are murdered by this securitizing apparatus.
Yet, this collective oppression by the Global North and the collective humiliating experience of being immigrants in another land has unfortunately not generated a mass solidarity movement in Tunisian society for their sub-Saharan co-habitants. On the contrary, the fact of Tunisian migration (through both ‘legal’ or ‘illegal’ means) is used to fuel the Great Replacement conspiracy theory, with many Tunisians arguing that their country is being ‘emptied’ of the so-called Arabo-Muslim population and being ‘replaced’ instead by ‘criminal Africans’ with many saying that they fear that the country will be 100 percent Black in a few years.5
While the European Union’s violent securitization apparatus is indeed responsible for the oppression and murder of sub-Saharan migrants (and Tunisians) in Tunisia, the Tunisian state also contributes to their oppression and murder. For example, the migration laws in Tunisia date from 1968 and are too outdated to respond to the current local and global migration regimes. In addition, the practice of migration governance is no longer controlled by these laws; rather, a sub-Saharan migrant’s legality or illegality is determined by the individual interpretation of the municipal, traffic, or border police that the migrant finds in front of her.6
Many of my sub-Saharan interlocutors living in Tunisia have told me repeatedly that they have “never wished to be sans-papiers, but [were] made so by the state.” Almost every sub-Saharan migrant I spoke with has tried to acquire legal documentation, and most have been refused after years of paperwork and payment of bribes.
With elevated overstay penalties (20 dinars per week, equivalent to around US$6.5) imposed by the Tunisian state on undocumented migrants seeking to legally leave the country, many sub-Saharan migrants tell me that it is financially cheaper to ‘take the boat’ (make the clandestine journey) to Italy. Sub-Saharan migrants are being forced to choose between continuing to live in Tunisia where they have been facing inhumane working and living conditions for the past decade, and where they now face the state supported virulent hatred, versus potentially facing death in the Mediterranean as they make their way to Italy.
Mobilizing solidarity and resistance
On 24 December 2016, three Congolese students were near-fatally attacked with a knife by a Tunisian man in the Tunis city-center. This led to a large-scale mobilization by both sub-Saharan and Black Tunisian civil society organizations who denounced racial discrimination and violence faced by sub-Saharan migrants as well as Black Tunisians. Their mobilization culminated into then-Prime Minister Youssef Chahed’s support for a law criminalizing racial discrimination—a law for which the civil society had been lobbying since 2011 revolution. In 2018, Tunisia became the first country in the so-called Arab region to have a law criminalizing racial discrimination; on the basis of this law, a legal demand to remove a discriminatory family name, which contains the vestiges of the cruel history of enslavement of Black families in Tunisia, was granted in 2020.
There has been a massive mobilization by Tunisian civil society (especially by Black Tunisian organizations) to support sub-Saharan migrants by organizing medical, legal, and housing support. Around a thousand protestors joined a solidarity march in Tunis on 25 February 2023. Journalists and informal groups continue to report the violence on the ground. As with the December 2016 incident, these current moments of immense hatred and violence may become a site to push for reforms, especially in the migration laws in Tunisia. I hope that this moment of economic and social crisis, of rising cost of living, of hunger and debt across the Global South nurtures solidarity on our collective condition as the wretched of the earth, irrespective of the borders, our nationalities and skin-colour.
Shreya Parikh is a Ph.D. candidate, and her dissertation research focuses on the constructions and contestations of race, and racialization in Tunisia through a focus on the study of racialization of Black Tunisians and sub-Saharan migrants. Parikh grew up in Ahmedabad in India, and currently resides in Tunis in Tunisia.
- ↩ All names of those I interviewed have been changed to protect their identity.
- ↩ I am aware that the use of the term ‘sub-Saharan African’ itself contributes to homogenization and possible marginalization of the group it categorizes. I have chosen to use it here because many of my interlocutors who come from ‘sub-Saharan Africa’ use the term to categorize themselves and those from their region of origin.
- ↩ Complex migrations processes, including enslavement from the North, also brought to Tunisia the ancestors of many non-Black Tunisians. Migration has always been at the core of population histories in Tunisia, both historically as well as in the present.
- ↩ The reports on anti-Black violence in this article relies on my telephonic conversations with sub-Saharan migrant interlocutors in Tunisia and social-media posts by activists and researchers reporting incidents of harassment.
- ↩ This type of discourse can be found on Facebook groups like “تونسيون ضد الوجود الأجصي (افارقة جنوب الصحراء)بتونس” (Tunisians against sub-Saharan African presence in Tunisia). See here (last accessed on 28 February 2023)
- ↩ Many of my sub-Saharan interlocutors living in Tunisia have told me that they have faced police searches and arrests without reason and declared “illegal” even when they were in possession of temporary residence permits. This has also been my case; in December 2022, while I was exiting Tunisia at Tunis-Carthage airport, I was declared “illegal” by the border police even though I was in possession of valid temporary residence permit.