April 7, 2023
IntelBrief: Tunisian President’s Incendiary Comments Lead to Backlash Against Sub-Saharan Migrants
In an incendiary statement Tunisian President Kais Saied claimed irregular migration from other parts of Africa was part of an international criminal plot to change Tunisia’s demographic makeup. He told his national security council that “hordes of illegal immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa are still arriving, with all the violence, crime, and unacceptable practices that entails,” and called on the council to take “urgent measures to tackle irregular migration.” Record levels of migration to Tunisia have amplified historic tensions and narratives around immigration, as well as the country’s increasing role as a transit country for migrants to Europe. According to data from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), at least 15,340 migrants and asylum seekers have arrived in Italy from Tunisia, compared with 4,036 during the same period in 2022.
President Saied’s remarks echoed the white supremacist “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, which contends that whites are being actively “replaced” by non-white immigrants in a plot orchestrated by global elites and/or Jews. Such rhetoric has underpinned far-right violent groups and attacks across several regions in different ways, including Europe, North America, and South Asia, for example. Some far-right politicians, such as Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary, have promulgated the narrative in speeches and online. "The Maghreb countries themselves are beginning to sound the alarm in the face of the surge in migration. Here it is, Tunisia that wants to take urgent action to protect its people. What are we waiting for to fight this Great Replacement?" said French far-right politician and former presidential candidate Eric Zemmour on Twitter, echoing Saied’s remarks. President Saied’s comments have also echoed the rhetoric of the emerging Tunisian Nationalist Party (TPN) – and its leader Sofien Ben Sghaier – which has been accused of pushing a racist and conspiracy-ridden agenda over the past two months. Rising from relative obscurity, Ben Sghaier and the TPN have circulated a narrative that Black migrants from sub-Saharan Africa are part of a Zionist settler movement designed to dismantle Tunisia, usurping its land and cultural identity – a narrative that builds upon historical tensions in the region and seems to have captured President Saied’s attention. In an interview with New Lines Magazine, Ben Sghaier alleged that “Europe’s dangerous plan is to populate and overtake Tunisia with [Black] Africans.” He invoked the situation in Palestine as a cautionary tale. He claims that Tunisia is “in mortal danger” and that Europe “wants to make [Tunisia] the new Palestine.”
This rhetoric has had real-world consequences. Days after President Saied’s comments, he ordered a rapid response on the “diplomatic, security, military fronts” and for his security forces to halt illegal immigration. In the following weeks, human rights organizations, such as the International Federation for Human Rights, say they have documented numerous human rights violations, including arbitrary arrests and detentions. Evictions, job dismissals, and xenophobic attacks targeting sub-Saharan Africans residing in Tunisia have also reportedly increased. On social media, accounts spreading racist narratives amplified Saied’s comments and went on to encourage mob violence against Black Africans. According to reports by Amnesty International, sub-Saharan migrants have allegedly been attacked by mobs, with a few cases where police were present but failed to intervene. The abuse in the streets and online recounted by migrants, foreign students, and others prompted the governments of Mali, Guinea, and Côte d’Ivoire to evacuate their citizens from Tunisia. Although claiming to clamp down solely on irregular migration, those legally in the country have been swept up by rising tensions and xenophobic abuse, including Tunisian citizens and students enrolled in Tunisian universities.
The crackdown on sub-Saharan migrants coincides with a significant rise in the number of migrants and refugees setting sail from Tunisia for Europe. The country has now become a key departure point for those fleeing poverty and violence in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, superseding Libya as the main point of departure in the region. According to the Forum for Social and Economic Rights, a Tunisian NGO, the Tunisian Coast Guard prevented more than 14,000 people from sailing in the Mediterranean during the first three months of this year, compared with just 2,900 during the same period in 2022. Although the number of migrants and asylum seekers attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe has not reached the historical levels seen in 2015, the journey has become more fatal. Tighter border restrictions and diminished legal pathways can lead those desperately fleeing conflict or seeking better economic opportunities toward riskier behavior – including overcrowding boats prone to capsizing or sinking. In March, two boats carrying migrants from sub-Saharan Africa sank off the coast of Tunisia while trying to reach Italy, resulting in the death of at least 29 people. Over four days, five boats capsized off the coast of the southern Tunisian city of Sfax, with nine dead and 67 people missing. The increased number of migrants departing from Tunisia, coupled with a journey that is becoming more deadly, signal potentially worsening trends in the warmer months ahead when migration rates historically tend to increase. Such trends could also embolden anti-migrant narratives already gaining a foothold and further stoke tensions.
President Saied’s speech was also the latest in a series of attacks on democratic norms, a dismal turn of events in the once sole success story of the Arab Spring. Since 2021, Saied has embarked on what many analysts agree is a far-reaching power grab, including freezing and dissolving parliament and pushing through a new constitution that removed many of the checks and balances of the 2014 constitution and centralized power in the hands of the president. In recent months, Saied has actively targeted opponents, including union activists, journalists, lawyers, judges, members of the business community, and political figures, accusing many of them of plotting against the state with the help of foreign backing. Dozens of leading opposition figures have been arrested and the government has used military trials against dissidents. In early March, Saied moved to dissolve the country’s elected municipal councils, which were seen as a key democratic development after the Arab Spring. Souad Ben Abderrahim, the former mayor of Tunis, was slotted to speak at the 2023 Global Security Forum, but following the dissolution of the city’s municipal council, she was removed from office and subsequently unable to participate just days before the conference. With the country in economic crisis, plagued by soaring inflation and unemployment, the current tensions seem set to continue to escalate, providing fertile ground for the spread of far-right narratives and the scapegoating of sub-Saharan African migrants.