One student in Tunis fears most for his female colleagues; a story is circulating that Tunisian men pretending to be police are approaching sub-Saharan African women, luring them away and then raping them.
Another student, Modeste from Benin, says he and his friends recently met in a café, but they were first asked for their resident permits before the waiter would serve their drinks.
These are two stories among hundreds of violent, racist incidents that are taking place in Tunisia as sub-Saharan African migrants and black Tunisians grapple with the nasty aftershock of comments President Kais Saied made last month.
“The undeclared goal of the successive waves of illegal immigration is to consider Tunisia a purely African country that has no affiliation to the Arab and Islamic nations,” Saied said.
Immigration is a plot aimed at changing Tunisia’s demography, he added, before ordering security forces to take “urgent measures” against the “hordes” of undocumented sub-Saharan African immigrants he said were responsible for a wave of crime.
Since then, armed mobs have attacked homes where black people live, broken their legs and stolen their possessions in a joint effort to rid them from the country.
Modeste, who volunteers for the African Association of African Students and Trainees in Tunisia, which helps sub-Saharan Africans integrate, does not want to give his last name: “I am afraid,” he says. “I can just disappear.”
Many have lost their jobs and housing overnight, even if these people have the correct documents, he says. “Imagine you just wake up and your landlord tells you, guys the government says we should not give you an apartment to rent and gives you three days to get out.”
At first, they didn’t like us. Now, after the declaration, it’s worse.
On a recent trip to the supermarket someone asked Modeste when he would return home and made the sign of an aeroplane taking off with their hands.
“The problem is that we are afraid of the population,” says Smyle, another student from Congo who also volunteers for AESAT. “That’s our biggest fear. Because the police aren’t there, they can do whatever they want to do.”
With worldwide coverage an international outcry has followed, with the African Union urging Tunisia not to use racialised hate speech. Earlier this week, the World Bank announced it was suspending future work with Tunisia after widespread reports of racist violence.
These international condemnations and global coverage of the violence have pushed the president to publicly row back on what he has said.
“The Ministry of Interior set up a hotline and said, if you get hurt, or harassed, call us,” says Shreya Parikh, a PhD candidate whose dissertation focuses on racialisation in Tunisia. “But the thing is, most violence comes from the Ministry of Interior. Literally no one trusts the Ministry of Interior.”
“I’ve heard stories about how a sub-Saharan person would approach the police and they would be threatened and arrested because they don’t have the papers. It’s total exposure to more violence by the state.”
At the beginning of this month, officials from Guinea and Ivory Coast announced they were repatriating hundreds of their citizens from Tunisia. Others, including students and businesspeople, are expected to leave.
“The higher education sector relies on sub-Saharan African migrant student money,” says Shreya. “I think any form of migrants who are coming to Tunisia voluntarily or have the economic means to leave will leave or not come.”
Modeste says students pay up to €6,000 ($6,325) a year in education fees, as well as putting money into rent, food and transportation. “If we leave this country and there are no students, we will see how they will live.”
Analysts say Saied is trying to shift the blame for Tunisia’s woes, among them chronic unemployment, a deteriorating economy and a power grab.
The ongoing social and economic crisis worsened in 2021 when Saied suspended the parliament and dismissed the government. Staple food products like sugar, flour, rice and cooking oil are disappearing from shops.
Some are pushing back against the president. On 5 March Tunisians gathered to protest Saied’s remarks: “No to racism, no to populism, Tunisia is an African country,” they chanted.
“Tunisians are good people,” says Smyle. “We have been here so many years and we lived in this country peacefully. We don’t know why this minority is doing this today. But we are asking the population and the government to stop this. Because we are the ones spending, we are not taking from them. We are not allowed to work in Tunisia.”
“In spite of the racist attacks Tunisian society is still a very hospitable society and you see people are still going to give food, calling up friends, trying to be there for them,” says Shreya. “So, there is still that sense in the society of trying to be hospitable towards people.”
Discontent has been ongoing in the country, including on the anniversary of the Arab Spring, when thousands of Tunisians took to the streets and demanded that Saied step down.
But instead, authorities have only escalated a crackdown on high profile opponents of the president including judges and trade unionists. Now, African migrants are part of this.
These African migrants in Tunisia have suffered racist attacks in the past, been blamed for the fact that rice is not available and for stealing Tunisians’ jobs. Many have been denied official paperwork, despite years of trying to get it.
“The level of discrimination in Tunisia has been bad for two or three years,” says Modeste. “Things were not going well, but we just managed and found a way to move forward. Before it was verbal discrimination, but now it can be physical.”
“Tunisia is a good country, we love Tunisia, but we are not welcome here,” he continues. “It is very difficult to live as a black person in Tunisia right now.”
Smyle says that the violence intensified last year when African migrants were arrested off the street or at bus and train stations arbitrarily, thrown in prison cells and kept in terrible conditions, including not being given food. “Nobody knew where you were. It was like we were animals. This time around it’s worse.”
“Now we are working with ministers and authorities in this country to calm the situation down because for a lot of people going back would mean they lose their money and their education,” he continues. “So AESAT is working and doing its best to make things work and let them hear our voice.”
“We need to remind them that we are not invaders, we are just students. We want the peaceful Tunisia back.”
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.