In Tunisia, scapegoating among migrants diverts attention from the government's continued failure to resolve the deep economic and social crisis, writes researcher Franzisca Zanker.
La declaration of the Tunisian president Kais Saeid that “urgent action” was needed “against the illegal immigration of sub-Saharan African nationals” which was causing “violence and criminality” sparked a nationwide backlash against the migrants.
The statement, which followed a meeting on national security, and the ensuing backlash against migrants, drew international condemnation, including from Africa.
Estimates of the number of migrants in Tunisia vary, from 21.000 regularly registered migrants, 59 000Including 9 000 registered refugees and asylum seekers.
The president noted in his inflammatory statement that the "relentless flow" and "hordes of illegal migrants" were aimed at altering the country's demographics "by threatening its Arab and Islamic character".
This offensive statement – and the resulting retaliation – is deeply shocking and has already had repercussions. In Tunisia, where anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise, far-right groups have been reinforced in their aggressive stance towards immigrants. Thousands of immigrants fled. Those who remain face attacks on their dignity.
Tunisia was condemned by the African community, with the strongest action taken by the African Union. She has postponed its scheduled meeting in Tunis, the Tunisian capital. Four West African countries – Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso and Côte d'Ivoire – have evacuated their nationals or called for caution.
Countries in sub-Saharan Africa have also called for a boycott Tunisian products. Tunisian civil society groups, human rights activists and artists have also condemned attacks on migrants.
This is a new consequence of the migration policies imposed by the European Union on Tunisia. It also contributes to the isolation and marginalization of the country compared to its neighbors on the continent, in this period of political and socio-economic crisis.
In Tunisia, recent attacks on migrants contribute to deepening polarization within different factions of society, particularly between NGOs mobilizing against anti-migrant racism and the expansion and appeal of populist parties and the conspiracy theory.
Migrants and refugees present in the country come from different parts of the world, including Syria. But most are from countries in sub-Saharan Africa, especially West Africa. They stay in the country for various reasons including studies, work and, for many, transit to Europe when the opportunity arises.
Park guide walks racist incidents against sub-Saharan refugees and migrants and hate speech are not new in Tunisia. Nevertheless, this particularly incendiary speech by President Saïed was followed by a vast "security" campaign,arbitrary arrests by the security forces of hundreds of sub-Saharan migrants. They were detained in illegal centers.
This systemic and racist violence affected a series of men, women, children and even infants from immigrant families. It resulted in physical attacks, dismissals,evictions housing and even schools and crèches.
Fear is widespread and hundreds of migrants have camped in front of the offices ofInternational Organization for Migration and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in the cold, seeking protection.
Anti-migrant debates and hate speech online have increased lately. The far-right Tunisian nationalist party has grown from a few thousand subscribers in January to more than 50 000 at the end of February. The speed of propagation of this party's message is alarming.
Even before the president's statement, the group had managed to collect more thana million signatures for a petition to deport undocumented sub-Saharan migrants. It shows his attempt to give a populist response to already widespread xenophobic sentiment.
Anti-migrant violence is part of a general context of failure in the face of the deep economic and social crises that Tunisia is going through. These have worsened since strengthening of his powers authoritatively on July 25, 2021.
This has not only created a rapprochement with conspiracy theories in public discourse, but especially in a context of high unemployment, commodity shortages and soaring food prices.
Tunisian society has become polarized. The fear and the hate speech spilled over online, and civil society and political opposition came under fire. increasing repression.
Designation of scapegoats
The backlash against migrants is politically useful in this context: scapegoating migrants serves to distract from the continued failure to address many of these domestic problems, as seen in other countries such as that South Africa.
Migrants are seen as a “burden” on an already poor infrastructure and economy, a danger to the public and foreign-funded party pawns in Tunisia to colonize it again. Reporting and cracking down on migrants aims to gain popularity, especially after the low participation rates in the 2022 elections.
Dozens of civil society groups, human rights activists and artists signed a collective statement calling for a rally against Saïed's words and the consequences they have had. Hundreds of people have protested in the streets, chanting “Down with fascism, Tunisia is an African country”.
The countries of the region were quick to react. There Guinea was the first to repatriate around XNUMX of its nationals for their own safety and dignity. A few days later, Mali repatriated three times as many.
Côte d'Ivoire has also offers to repatriate its own nationals. Burkina Faso's ambassador in Tunis expressed his solidarity in this “difficult situation”. Of the apples to boycott Tunisian products have been launched, notably in Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea, Senegal and Mali.
The African Union (AU) issued a statement the day after the President's offensive remarks. She strongly criticized Tunisia and urged it to avoid “racial hate speech”. An AU meeting scheduled in Tunis for mid-March was canceled.
These reactions remind us of those aroused in 2017 by the dissemination of CNN footage showing African migrants and refugees being auctioned off in slave markets in Libya. This created a big scandal on the continent and provoked reactions, particularly from Burkina Faso, which had recalled his ambassador to Libya.
A big scandal unfolded on the continent and the reactions included Burkina Faso reminiscent his ambassador to Libya.
Countries like Nigeria have evacuated by air thousands of their nationals from Libya.
Governments have been reluctant to accept returns from Europe. But the attitudes with regard to returns to the mainland have been different.
It is difficult to know what are the foreign policy goals of Tunisia under Saied.
On March 8, the President Umaro Sissoco Embalo of Guinea-Bissau visited Tunisia, also in his capacity as President of the Economic Community of West African States. During that visit, Mr. Saied backtracked on his insidious remarks, arguing that his statement had been misinterpreted. Not only were his family members married to “Africans” but he also had “African” friends. And in response to President Embalo, he admis : “I am indeed African and proud of it”.
A series of new measures were quickly announced, including a hotline to report human rights violations, psychological assistance for migrants, and waiver of fees related to residence permit violations if migrants agree to return to their country of origin.
But the state-sponsored violence continued.
For the countries and peoples of the region, it is simply another dimension of outsourcing policies unpopular imposed on them by the European Union. The aim is to reduce immigration to Europe.
Making Tunisia unlivable for sub-Saharan migrants is part of the strategy of deterrence pursued by the European Union. But the attacks risk tarnishing Tunisia's reputation on the continent. Diplomatic relations will be severely affected by racist attacks.
Civil society groups exacting already the suspension of Tunisia from the African Union.
The outlook for individual migrants is bleak. They will continue to live in an atmosphere of fear and danger. And for the entire Tunisian population, the xenophobic attacks will only create more divisions at a time when the soaring cost of living and the multiple international and national crises make solidarity – including on the continent – essential.
Tunisia needs allies to overcome these multiple crises. Increasing isolation will make this task difficult.
Nermin Abbassi, political science student at the University of Cologne and research assistant, contributed to this article.
Franzisca Zanker, Senior research fellow, Arnold Bergstraesser Institute
This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.