Tunisian human rights organisations condemned on Wednesday President Kais Saied for making what they described as a "racist" speech about migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. The speech, they said, incites "hatred" and is likely to fuel the migrant crisis.
Saied emphasised on Tuesday the need to take "urgent measures" to stop the flow of "hordes of irregular immigrants" from sub-Saharan Africa because it leads to "violence and crimes". He made his comment after chairing a meeting of the National Security Council at the Carthage Palace.
The official spokesman for the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, Ramadan Bin Omar, told Agence France-Presse that, "The speech was steeped in racism and hate unfortunately. We were waiting to see the head of state who represents the country that has signed international treaties and international legal tools, and today the president delivered such a speech. It is a very grave matter… We completely condemn this speech."
According to Bin Omar, Saied "exploits" the immigrant crisis to achieve two goals: "The first is to distract public opinion with fictional issues and allude to a new danger to divert attention from economic and social issues, and the second is a clear and complete obedience to the demands and pressures of the Italian authorities to control the flow of immigrants."
Saied's speech was also condemned by the anti-racism organisation Mnemty. "We denounce, with great anger, the hatred and aggression issued by the Presidency of the Republic," it said, "and a call that incites violence against black immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa who reside in Tunisia."
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The speech also sparked reactions on social media by activists who were divided between support and criticism.
"Unfortunately, it is a speech that does not resemble Tunisia in anything," wrote Mustafa Abdelkabir, a human rights activist and head of the Tunisian Observatory for Human Rights, on Facebook. "Tunisia's international status and history are much greater than this speech. Saied should have diagnosed the problems and set out a well-defined strategic plan for the immigration process."
However, far-right French politician Eric Zemmour wrote on Twitter that, "Maghreb countries have begun to sound the alarm to combat the escalation of immigration. What are we waiting for?"
Saied's statements came a few days after more than twenty Tunisian human rights organisations denounced what they described as public "hate speech" against immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa. The NGOs called on the Tunisian authorities to address "hate speech, discrimination and racism" on social media and other media outlets.
Tunisia hosts around 21,000 immigrants, including students and legal residents. Most come from Ivory Coast, Mali, Cameroon, Ghana and Guinea. The total population of Tunisia is 12 million.
Thousands of immigrants head to Tunisia, where most work in simple and difficult jobs in order to earn enough money to pay for the hazardous journey across the Mediterranean to Italy.