TUNISIA – In Tunisia, hundreds of sub-Saharan Africans have reported being forcibly evicted from their homes and subjected to racially motivated violence after President Ben Ali’s recent comments angered migrants.
According to Tunisian President Kais Saied last week, “urgent measures” were needed to tackle irregular migration, and claimed, without evidence, that there was “a criminal plot” underway “to change Tunisia’s demographic make-up”.
Due to their skin color, black Tunisians, both citizens and migrants, have been attacked, mugged, and abused since then.
There have also been dozens of arrests of migrants who are deemed “illegal” by the police.
Mr. Saied’s speech was condemned by the African Union as “racialised hate speech”.
Tunisia’s representative was summoned for an urgent meeting by the AU Commission to express “deep shock and concern at the form and substance of the statement targeting fellow Africans”.
“He [Mr. Saied] is the reason we are here,” Natacha, 27, from Sierra Leone, told The National in front of the headquarters of the UN’s International Organisation for Migration in Tunis.
Hundreds of people from sub-Saharan Africa are camping outside IOM’s office since last week after being displaced from their homes. Natacha is among them. Her landlord attacked her and her husband, forcing them to flee their house in Ariana, north of Tunisia.
“They broke into our house at midnight and dragged us out, they piled our belongings and burnt them before our eyes,” Natacha said of the night she became homeless.
“They beat me up so badly that I suffered a miscarriage,” she added.
Natacha was hitched on a lorry four months ago when she traveled north from Sierra Leone with her husband and friend Meriem. Saving money for the trip took a year, and making the 5,000-kilometer journey took two weeks.
According to her, the dangerous journey turned violent and she was raped in Algeria.
“I am an orphan, all my family have been killed and I had no other choice but to come here,” Meriem, 26, told The National, as she set fire to some plastic bottles for heat in the cold weather.
There were others who said that their situation was bad before Mr. Saied’s comments, but it had gotten worse since then.
“We have always been called names and attacked on the street before, but this time it’s different”, Yahya, immigrant from Sierra Leone.
The President’s speech, she said, gave people “the go-ahead to address their racism ”.
Citizens of Sierra Leone are unable to seek official help from their country due to the absence of diplomatic representation in Tunisia.
Also camping outside the IOM headquarters, Emmanuel said he fled Nigeria’s south-eastern region after unrest erupted.
“We did not come here because things are better; we escaped civil unrest,” he told The National.
Libya was his first stop before Tunisia. “I had to escape bombing in Libya, too, and came here,” he said, showing the relevant stamps on his passport.
“I am here in front of the UN trying to seek asylum; if they can’t help us, they should help us go home to die there instead of dying in a foreign land,” he said.
In response to the president’s remarks, Emmanuel, too, was kicked out of his home overnight. According to him, his landlord took his rent money and threw him out onto the streets.
“They stole my phone and I cannot even reach out to my family,” said Osman, 20, another from Sierra Leone.
“I do not know if they are alive and they do not know if I am.”
According to Osman, he sold all his family’s property in order to reach Tunisia.
“I am sick and tired, I hope someone can help us,” he said, showing bruises on his legs he said were from people beating him with sticks as he was thrown out of his home.
A number of videos circulated on Tunisian Facebook and TikTok groups show black people being assaulted, with some covered in blood. The accounts of migrant African tenants being kicked out, their belongings being set on fire, and assaulted by Tunisian landlords have also been shared online.
There are still dozens of migrants encamped outside the IOM headquarters in Tunis, as well as other embassies, awaiting repatriation and asylum by the UN agency.