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‘Life for black people in Tunisia 5 months after the president’s racist speech has been incredibly challenging’

July 13, 2023 at 3:00 pm

African immigrants, who have settled in the al-Buhaire region in the north of the capital Tunis of Tunisia continue their lives on the streets with limited opportunities on March 05, 2023 [Yassine Gaidi/Anadolu Agency]

When Tarek Tookebry began raising funds to collect essential items for a humanitarian convoy to Tunisia’s second city, Sfax – where black Africans are being increasingly attacked and deported – the initial goal was to raise 10,000 Tunisian dinars ($3,300).

As of Wednesday 12 July, Humetna, an NGO based in Medjez El Bab, has raised over 47,000 TD ($15,500).

“This level of support demonstrates the compassion and solidarity of Tunisians towards the cause, and it affirms that there is a significant portion of the population who stand against the discriminatory treatment faced by sub-Saharan African and black individuals,” says Tarek, who is director of the organisation.

Sfax is an industrial hub in southern Tunisia and a major port town. It is close to Italy’s Lampedusa, and hundreds of black African migrants have gathered here in recent months, many hoping to take small boats to reach the island and escape rising racism in the country.

But rather than crossing the Mediterranean, a recent Human Rights Watch report revealed that Tunisian security forces have expelled several hundred black African migrants and asylum seekers since the start of July, in and near Sfax, to the Tunisia-Libya border, with little food and medical assistance.


HRW interviewees said they had been arrested in police, national guard and military raids. Some had been raped and beaten by Tunisian security forces who also threw away their food and smashed their phones.

Others within the city itself spoke out about how they have been robbed, threatened with knives, and had stones thrown at them. Dozens are sleeping out on the street.

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With the funds raised by their campaign, Humenta – which means ‘neighbourhood’ in the Tunisian dialect – has bought canned goods and grains, soap, toothpaste, first aid kits and blankets for babies. They are currently searching for partners in Sfax and other parts of southern Tunisia to help them distribute the products, but it’s not easy:

 “We have encountered some challenges in engaging local civil NGOs due to concerns about potential negative reactions from certain individuals,” Tarek says.

It has been reported on Twitter that locals in Sfax offering help have now withdrawn, in fear of reprisals from the police, who have punished people for offering to shelter people at the heart of the crisis, or for simply providing them with food and water. NGOs have little access to the migrants in distress.

In February, Tunisian President Kais Saied provoked international outrage when he said immigration is a plot aimed at changing Tunisia’s demography and ordered security forces to take “urgent measures” against the “hordes” of undocumented sub-Saharan African migrants he said were responsible for a wave of crime.

Reports circulated of armed mobs attacking homes where black people live, breaking their legs and stealing their possessions in a joint effort to rid them from the country. One video showed a group of Tunisian men threatening black Africans with batons and knives.

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Tunisia is facing an economic crisis and food shortages, all of which has been blamed on the country’s sub-Saharan population. “Life for sub-Saharan African and black people in Tunisia five months after the president’s racist speech has been incredibly challenging,” says Tarek.

“Following the president’s racist remarks in February regarding the colonisation of black people in Tunisia, these individuals have faced significant hardships and discrimination.”

“The speech has had a profound impact on their daily lives, leading to increased marginalisation and exclusion,” he adds.

“They are enduring immense suffering and struggling to survive in an environment where acceptance and support are scarce. Unfortunately, the wounded state of Tunisia, with its deteriorating economy, rampant unemployment and inadequate provision of necessities, has created an atmosphere where these individuals are no longer welcomed or embraced.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.