Tunisian authorities should ensure an immediate end to the wave of attacks against Black African migrants across Tunisia which started in early February and accelerated following racist and xenophobic comments made by President Kais Saied on February 21, Amnesty International said today.
The authorities must investigate and hold perpetrators to account, including, in particular, where police officers were involved in the assault. They should release all arbitrarily detained migrants and ensure that they are not involuntarily returned.
President Saied’s remarks during a National Security Council meeting on February 21, which amounted to advocacy of hatred, triggered an upsurge in anti-Black racist violence, with mobs taking to the streets and attacking Black migrants, students and asylum seekers, and police officers detaining and deporting scores.
President Saied said that “hordes of irregular migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa” had come to Tunisia, “with all the violence, crime, and unacceptable practices that entails”. He said this was an “unnatural” situation and part of a criminal plan designed to “change the demographic make-up” and turn Tunisia into “just another African country that doesn’t belong to the Arab and Islamic nations any more”.
“President Saied must retract his comments and order investigations to clearly signal that anti-Black racist violence will not be tolerated. The president must stop finding scapegoats for Tunisia’s economic and political woes. The community of Black African migrants in Tunisia is now gripped by fear of assault or being arbitrarily arrested and summarily deported,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“So far, the Tunisian authorities have sought to downplay these violent attacks and even deny them altogether. Authorities should prioritize the investigation of incidents of police violence against Black migrants, put an immediate end to forcible returns currently underway and prevent any further racially motivated attacks by gangs or state agents.”
For two weeks, the authorities denied racist violence against Black Africans had occurred. After the international outcry provoked by the President’s comments, the authorities announced, “new measures” on March 5 to facilitate the legal residency of migrants, as well as a process of repatriation for those “wishing to voluntarily leave the country,” but the attacks and violence have continued.
Amnesty International interviewed 20 people in Tunis, among them five asylum seekers and 15 undocumented migrants from Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria, Guinea and Ivory Coast. They were all attacked by mobs, and in at least three cases, the police were present but failed to intervene to stop the attacks or arrest the perpetrators.
Since the beginning of February, Avocats sans Frontières (ASF), an organization providing legal aid to asylum seekers and migrants, has confirmed at least 840 Black African migrants, students and asylum seekers rounded up in several cities in Tunisia.
Many of those interviewed said that violence and hostility against Black people were a regular feature of their life in Tunisia. However, 20 witnesses said the attacks escalated after the President’s speech.
Racist attacks by mobs after the president’s incitement
Witnesses described to Amnesty International how, after the president’s speech, Tunisian men, sometimes armed with batons and knives, had taken to the streets of the capital and attacked them or raided their houses.
On February 24, Manuela D, 22, a Cameroonian asylum seeker, was stabbed in the chest, causing horrific injuries. She was attacked by a group of six men who shouted racist insults at her.
She told Amnesty International that she was in Ariana neighborhood in Tunis, outside a café, when she felt a violent blow on the neck. She fell on the ground and heard voices shouting, in French “go back home, you gang of Blacks, we don’t want you here.”
When she woke up, she was in the hospital, covered in blood, her clothes torn. She had a long open wound on her right breast, and other injuries to her abdomen and her lips. She shared with Amnesty International a photo taken that night, showing the injury sustained to her breast.
Aziz, 21, from Sierra Leone, told Amnesty International that he came to Tunisia in June 2021 to work as a construction worker. He said that a few days after the president’s speech, 10 Tunisians came to his house in Ariana, broke the door, stole his things and forced him and his family out. He said the people who attacked and shoved him and his wife said: “all Black people must leave, they don’t want to see us, they don’t want us here… they took our money, even our food, they said we don’t want any Black people, go back to Africa.”
In eight cases, migrant workers and asylum seekers said that they had been forced out of their homes by mobs, and that their belongings had been either stolen or destroyed. Ten told Amnesty International that they had been expelled by their landlords after authorities threatened to punish anyone hosting or employing “illegal migrants”.
Some of those interviewed were staying in unhygienic conditions in a makeshift camp in front of the International Organisation for Migration, in Tunis, with no access to food except some distributed by volunteer citizens’ groups, or a toilet, or warm clothes, having lost all their belongings.
Assault by the police
Three witnesses said they were assaulted or arrested by the police.
Milena, a student from Burkina Faso, reported that she was subjected to physical and verbal attack by the police.
She told Amnesty International that she was coming out of the supermarket on the morning of March 3 when three Tunisian men standing nearby began to insult her, telling her to leave the country.
A passing police car then stopped, but instead of addressing the men, asked her to produce her residency permit. She replied that she was a student and produced her school documents.
However, she was immediately handcuffed, forced into the police car and taken to Ariana police station. She said: “When I got to the police station one policeman shouted at me saying “you Blacks create problems” … and another one kneed me in the stomach.”
After four hours of detention, they released her after a Tunisian woman whom she knew, came to vouch for her.
Arrest and forcible return
Djomo, 30, a construction worker from Cote d’Ivoire, told Amnesty International that on March 5, at about 8pm, he was sleeping in a house in Sfax that he shares with five others, when he heard a loud bang on the door and a group of around 10 men broke in.
“They were armed with batons, some forced two of my flatmates out and beat them until they fell on the floor. Others started destroying everything in the house, they took the money and phones of some of us. The National Guard came 30 minutes later, they didn’t arrest the assailants, but instead handcuffed us and took us to their headquarters.”
He said that he had been arrested along with 25 others that night, including an eight-months pregnant woman. The following day, all 25 were taken to court but they were freed in the afternoon without trial. Djomo said that the landlord told them they cannot come back to the house. At the time of the interview, he was living rough on the street.
Amnesty International reviewed recent videos and photos taken from inside Ouardia, a detention centre in Tunis, showing security agents beating migrants. In one video, officers forcefully dragged a Black man down a flight of stairs.
In recent days hundreds of Black Africans have been intimidated into returning to their own countries. At least 300 Malians and Ivorians were returned to their countries on 4 March as part of what has been described as a “voluntary evacuation”. A group of Guinean migrants were repatriated on March 1.
In 2018, Tunisia was the first country in the MENA region to enact a law that penalizes racial discrimination and allows victims of racism to seek redress for verbal abuse or physical acts of racism. In recent months, a campaign of anti-Black hatred has swept social media and the media. A party called the Tunisian Nationalist party, which espouses “great replacement” ideology, and considers that the presence of Black Africans in Tunisia is part of a “plot to change the composition of society,” is regularly invited in the media and its members are vocal in expressing these views online, with no reaction from the authorities.
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