Tunisian president Kais Saied rejects racism accusation after migrant clampdown

Police detained hundreds of migrants while landlords summarily evicted many from their homes and several others were fired from work

Sub-Saharan migrants take their belongings as they head to a repatriation flight, leaving Tunis to their countries of origin on March 4. AFP
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Tunisia's president Kais Saied has denounced racism and pointed to possible legal consequences for perpetrators 10 days after announcing a clampdown on irregular migration — using language the African Union condemned as “racialised hate speech”.

Late in February, during a meeting with the Tunisian National Security Council, Mr Saied rejected what he called “sub-Saharan African occupation” and the “attempts to alter the demographic composition of Tunisia”, sparking a widespread backlash domestically and abroad.

Police detained hundreds of migrants, landlords summarily evicted many from their homes and several others were fired from work, rights groups say.

While Mr Saied denied racism on February 23, he repeated his view of immigration as a demographic plot. Before Sunday, he had not publicly warned of any legal consequences for the attacks.

On Sunday, he described the accusations of racism as a campaign against the country “from known sources”, without elaborating.

But he said Tunisia was honoured to be an African country and announced a relaxation of visa rules for African citizens, allowing stays of up to six months, instead of three, without seeking residency, and of a year for students.

He said migrants who had overstayed could leave without paying any penalty after many of those authorities sought to deport had proved that they were unable to pay fines for late stays.

He painted his clampdown on irregular migration as being a campaign against human trafficking and pointed to a law passed in 2018 against discrimination to say that any verbal or physical attacks on foreigners would be prosecuted.

Opposition parties and rights groups have said Mr Saied's clampdown on immigrants, which coincided with arrests of senior opposition figures, was aimed at distracting Tunisians from the country's economic crisis.

Mr Saied said his actions were legal as he needed to save Tunisia from chaos.

Updated: March 06, 2023, 5:11 AM