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Tunisia: in Tunisia, Climate of Fear Shrinks Options for Sub-saharan Africans

Tunis, Tunisia — One-month-old Ishmael knows nothing beyond a scrappy migrant camp in Tunis, its makeshift tents, buttressed with plastic bags, offering respite from a scorching August sun. “Hush, hush,” a resident tells the wailing infant, as Ishmael’s mother Edna Kemorsay spreads a soothing ointment on him. It’s not the future she was hoping for. “This country is not easy to live in,” said Kemorsay, from Sierra Leone, who crossed the Sahara desert heavily pregnant, hoping to use coastal Tunisia as a springboard to Italy. “We just go out to the streets to beg for food.”

For Kemorsay and other sub-Saharan migrants at the camp, pitched in an affluent Tunis neighborhood, dreams of reaching Europe are fading. Instead, they are surviving on handouts and confronting mounting hostility in this North African country that has seen a spike in attacks against Black African migrants in recent months. And they are the lucky ones.

Across Tunisia, sub-Saharan Africans including students have been ousted from jobs and homes, and subjected to police checks and detentions, migrants and rights activists say. Following July clashes between residents and migrants in the port city of Sfax, Tunisian authorities reportedly transported hundreds of migrants to the Algerian and Libyan borders, with some dying of thirst in the desert.

The alleged abuses backdropped a July migration deal between the European Union and Tunisia, now a top route for Africans — including Tunisians — heading to Europe. “We want our agreement with Tunisia to be a template. A blueprint for the future,” said European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen of a deal that sees Tunisia receiving $109 million in EU funds to fight illegal migration — with similar agreements anticipated with Egypt and Morocco.

“It was really shocking to see the European leaders push for a deal with Tunisia on migration control where hundreds of Black migrants were stranded at the border calling for help,” said Salsabil Chellali, Tunisia director for Human Rights Watch. Critics, including EU lawmakers, have also taken aim at Brussels. “For Europe, giving up on rights, rules and the law to its south is not just unprincipled or, as some would say, immoral. It is not even pragmatic,” wrote analyst and EU adviser Nathalie Tocci in a commentary in Britain’s The Guardian newspaper.

Surging migration — and heartbreak

Authorities and rights group say illegal migration from Tunisia has surged in recent months. Tunisian authorities say they have intercepted more than 34,000 migrants off the country’s shores in the first six months of this year, compared to 9,000 in 2022. It’s not just sub-Saharan Africans. Tunisians also are boarding rickety boats to Europe, as the country’s economy tanks and unemployment soars. Hundreds have drowned so far this year.

“Tunisians don’t see a future, even if they have jobs,” said Alaa Talbi, executive director of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, a nonprofit. Rather than trying to stop migration, he says, Tunisians and Europeans need to look at the problem more holistically and creatively. “We send young people to Europe; Italy sends us its retirees,” Talbi said of the expatriates in coastal towns. “It needs to be seen in this angle as well.” The fate of the sub-Saharan Africans is a more immediate problem. Rights groups say they have documented cases of collective migrant expulsions, along with arbitrary detentions and even torture by Tunisian security forces.

Nor has a recent deal between Tunisia and Libya to share responsibility for migrants stranded at their border improved matters, HRW’s Chellali said. Migrants in Tunisia continue to face danger, she said, while Libya has long been accused of rights abuses. The European Union’s executive arm did not respond to VOA requests for comment. For their part, Tunisian authorities have denied carrying out collective expulsions or other mistreatment — while adding the best option for undocumented migrants is going home.

“I know about the history of racial discrimination in Tunisia, but we’ve always had a culture of welcoming people in crisis,” said Reem Garfi, a Black Tunisian activist for anti-racist group Mnemty. “To see people feeling unwelcome and attacked in my country is heartbreaking.”


Triggering the uptick in racist attacks, observers say, were February remarks by President Kais Saied, who described “hordes of illegal migrants” in a broader plot to change “the demographic landscape of Tunisia” — remarks denounced by the African Union among others. Tunisia’s tiny far-right Nationalist Party and social media are also feeding anti-migrant sentiments and conspiracy theories. “There’s a big mafia controlling this immigration,” said taxi driver Walid Ben Olthman. “Migrants get a lot of money sent to them to stay; it’s a big manipulation.”

African migrants say they are destitute. “When the president gave his speech, everything changed,” said Joseph Milk from Liberia. He had been living and working in Tunis since arriving five years ago. “My boss told me to leave work. The house I was staying in — they told me to leave.” Milk said he was jailed for 2½ months after police claimed he had no legal papers, which he disputes. Today, he is camping out in the migrant squat, located next to the International Organization for Migration’s Tunis office.

By day, he and other sub-Saharan Africans go out to beg. By night, they guard the camp. “Tunisian citizens come every night,” he said. “Some of them try to stone us.”Other migrants, like 36-year-old Victor, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, are hiding out. “Since the president’s remarks, I don’t work anymore,” said Victor, who declined to give his full name, speaking from his bare-bones apartment in a working-class Tunis neighborhood. He alleges police detained him, releasing him only when he paid them money. His student visa expired a few months ago. At the migrant camp, Kemorsay still hopes to get to Italy. She is worried about her future here — but also crossing the Mediterranean. “It’s risky,” she said. “It’s very risky.”