As of November 2023, 12,000 migrants are registered with UNHCR Tunisia. The response from the nation’s President, Kaïs Saïed, as well as the public, has been nothing short of worrisome. Saïed’s hateful messages about Black migrants have increased tensions between migrants and Tunisians. Hate speech against minority groups and migrants is nothing new, nor unusual, in the world. Europe has seen a rise in far-right rhetoric and populism, and the situation in Tunisia could very well be a cautionary tale for the rest of the world on the consequences of populism on minorities.
Tunisia is following the global trend of autocratisation. Since the election of Kais Saïed for President in 2019, the country has transitioned from an electoral democracy to an electoral autocracy—a system where multiparty elections exist, but insufficient freedom of expression and association hinder them from being free and fair. Continuous centralisation of power is behind this shift. This process is deeply connected to Saïed, who has led the country towards populism. Rooted in societal dissatisfaction with traditional political parties, populist parties offer an alternative through their opposition to conventional politics. In its contemporary form, it can be seen as anti-democratic and anti-elitist. Using minorities as scapegoats for larger societal issues is a tactic often employed to speak to the majority population. Saïed showcased the racist tendencies of populism in February earlier this year. He stated that the large influx of Black African migrants is a “plot to change the demographic constitution of Tunisia”, arguing that the Tunisian people and their identity are under attack. Despite receiving criticism, Saïed never retracted his statements. Rather, he stated that legal migrants do not need to worry and that only “illegal migrants” are the country’s downfall. In addition to his previous statement—hostile toward Black African migrants—his response can be interpreted as categorising Black migrants as illegal. Using the word “illegal” to describe people is also frequently criticised for perpetuating racism.
Tunisia is a country in North Africa with no national asylum law. This means that there is no formal regulation or guidelines for seeking asylum in Tunisia—making UNHCR the responsible institution for handling asylum cases. The migrants who come to Tunisia consist of a mixed movement, which is divided into three categories: migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. The people who are considered migrants are people who voluntarily leave their homes in hopes of a better life elsewhere. UNHCR does not necessarily help migrants since they fall under the International Organisation for Migration’s (IOM) care.
With no national asylum law, a question arises: How attainable is it for the majority of refugees and migrants to legally migrate to, and settle in Tunisia? Assuming a migrant has made his or her way into Tunisia legally, reports show delays in the provision of residence permits to Black Africans. This forces them to become undocumented and lose their legal status in Tunisia. Migrants from the Global North may sometimes see the same treatment, yet it is not to the same extent. Nor are migrants from the Global North viewed in Tunisia as illegal and criminal by the state and society, like Black migrants are. This outlines the systematic discrimination and racism against Black migrants.
Discrimination is not limited to state documents, but it is rampant in the daily lives of Black African migrants. The speech given by President Kaïs Saïed has given rise to hate crimes and mass violence against migrants. Black African migrants have been abused in the streets, in their own homes, and evicted. The police have done nothing to acknowledge the crimes towards migrants. Black African migrants have been forced out of their homes by groups of Tunisian men, where they have been assaulted and their belongings stolen. The abuse these migrants have been subjected to ranges from evictions to sexual assault. One incident from February this year saw a Cameroonian asylum seeker stabbed in the chest in a cafe while hearing racist slurs shouted at her. She woke up in the hospital, only to find blood all over herself. She is by no means the only one. Police have taken advantage of the volatile situation—using it to show their superiority—by arresting over 300 Black African migrants and in some cases assaulting the migrants themselves. Many Black African migrants now want to leave, abandoning their hopes of finding a better life in Tunisia because of the bad treatment from authorities and the general population. Some of those who leave go back to poverty, and others go to active war zones rather than staying and being mistreated.
This mistreatment of Black African migrants in Tunisia has led many to protest for their human rights outside of UNHCR’s office in Tunis—the capital of Tunisia. The demonstrations have been going on since March 2023. Police have reportedly used teargas to disperse demonstrators. Among them are not only men but also pregnant women and children. Other people present at the protests outside the UNHCR office report being hit by batons and having their items stolen. They are left behind with the feeling of having nowhere to go.
A country without a national asylum law. A country with systematic discrimination against Black migrants and a president that not only condones but encourages it. It is easy to understand why migrants, who once saw hope in Tunisia, end up going back to their old lives. Back to poverty, war or worse. Is Saïed getting what he wants? At what costs? UNHCR is working to try to help migrants in Tunisia, but with a government that is less willing to do so, it falls short. The options for these people are limited, and it’s time to talk about it.